The Real March Madness

It’s hugely exciting times for college hoops fans, awash in basketball games where they breathlessly wait to see if, oh, the Grand Canyon University Antelopes beat the Iowa Hawkeyes, or if Creighton holds off UCSB, whatever that is. Wait, there is a Grand Canyon University?!

Some $1.5 billion will be bet legally over all the new gambling apps, almost 40 million Americans will fill out those brackets, gallons of newspaper ink will be spilled, and sports analysts will natter on for hours. “Bracketology” will trend on Twitter; coaches’ heads will roll. 

Over 19-year-old kids playing hoops. Welcome to March Madness. 

Meanwhile, receiving no fanfare at all, nature in March is simply exploding. Flowers have already begun opening, an elegant parade blooming in an orchestrated sequence begun back in February when skunk cabbages poked through the mud in wet areas, purple mottled hoods protecting a Sputnik-shaped flower. Just this week, the buds of red maples have popped to reveal tiny wind-pollinated flowers, little red spiders dangling from tree branches.  

Red maple

Sure, on our lawns there are snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils and tulips. But our forests will be bursting with ephemeral wildflowers with names as evocative as the flowers are stunning: trout lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, bloodroot, shooting star, Dutchman’s breeches, Solomon’s seal… With all apologies to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (whose show is delayed and outdoors this year—great idea), here’s the real flower show.

Meanwhile, migrating birds are undergoing their own rite of spring, flying through in  progression, red-winged blackbirds and phoebes now, ruby-throated hummingbirds later. Waves of woodland warblers—tiny but unbelievably exquisite creatures wearing extraordinary coats of many colors—pass through like clockwork, pine and prairie warblers right now, blackpolls bringing up the rear at season’s end. And they are passing through in their breeding plumage, essentially wearing  their Sunday best for us. Just Google “Blackburnian warbler”: is there a prettier animal anywhere?

Blackburnian warbler

And while some of these birds are staying for the summer, many are heading to nesting grounds far north of here—think Adirondacks and Canada—only visiting the region for a few days on their journeys north and south. Blink and they’re gone. 

Those birds that nest here—cardinals and chickadees, titmice and robins—will be calling their love songs. One of my favorite sounds of spring is the first moment I hear a wood thrush. A cousin of the robin, the thrush’s song is like organ pipes or flute music: it is simply stunning, and stops me in my tracks every spring. 

Butterflies soon begin awakening, mourning cloaks first, painted ladies soon, swallowtails in late April, and monarchs, just now leaving Mexico, much later.  

Hibernators are crawling out of dens ready to start the new year. Already, painted turtles are basking alongside Fire Pond near the front door of the Schuylkill Center, and American toads will soon be crossing Port Royal Avenue on a dark and stormy night to get to their mating grounds up in the old reservoir across the road. And any day now I expect to see the first groundhog of the season, likely nibbling on roadside grass blades, likely on that high bench of lawn along Hagy’s Mill Road, on the old Water Department land.

That’s the real March madness, that here we are, on the very first days of spring, having survived another wild and wooly winter, having been stuck in lockdown and freeze-down and ice-down, and we’re not betting on the first day a phoebe arrives from the tropics or the first day a mourning cloak butterfly flitters into view. We’re not inviting friends over for a beer to watch our crocuses unfold. We’re not sitting in lawn chairs to admire the red blush of flowers blooming across the maples on our street.

We’re not writing in our brackets which species migrates through first, the yellow-rumped warbler or the great crested flycatcher. 

No, we’re debating whether David, the 16th-seeded Drexel Dragons, can slay the Goliath of Illinois, the Big 10 champions and top seed in the Midwest. (OK, here I relent: go Drexel!)

The struggle for me as an environmental educator is that, as a nation, as a culture, we have collectively decided, quietly but definitively, that college basketball matters. Just look at the air time. The ink space. Heck, coaches’ salaries—in many states, athletic coaches are the highest paid state employees.

But nature? Not so much. Sure, it gets a weekly high-quality hour on PBS, but how are those spring wildflowers doing? How are migrating birds faring? How are those monarch butterflies doing, actually on the bubble as a species? Where’s the Nature section of the city newspaper? The culture has spoken, and nature is far, far down our list.

There’s another part of this madness: nature’s elegant springtime succession of flowers blossoming, trees leafing out, and birds migrating is in disarray because the symphony has a new conductor. While climate change is rearranging ancient patterns to an as-yet-unknown effect, the biggest experiment in the history of a planet…

… we’re glued to TV sets arguing over who’s better, Gonzaga or Baylor.  

So the real flower show has already started outdoors, in your backyard, in a forest near you. But we’re stuck inside filling out brackets.  

That’s just madness.

Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Window Strike Season

A towel, some gloves, and a cardboard box are all you need to help rescue window-strike victims like this black-throated blue warbler.

It’s fall migration season- do you have your bird rescue kit ready? 

During the summer, if you come across a bird on the ground that can’t fly, it’s often safe to assume that bird is a baby. But during spring and fall migration, birds that are found on the ground that do not fly away are frequently adult migratory birds that have struck a window or become disoriented and are in need of human help. 

Many migratory birds do most of their travelling at night, when they use the light from the moon and stars, reflections from bodies of water, and even particular sounds to help them navigate their way to their winter grounds down south. Bright lights of urban areas, especially those that extend high into the sky such as skylights and skyscrapers, are particularly dangerous. The most common places to find these birds will be early in the morning on the sidewalk below tall city buildings, but you may find them sitting below the windows of your home and business as well. 

Remember- the head and spinal trauma that can result from colliding with a window at high speed is a medical emergency! Common signs of collision include: looking “puffed up”, squinting eyes, squatting down instead of standing upright, and neurologic signs like trembling or a head tilt. 

Rapid action is so important to the bird’s survival.

Here’s what to do if you find a bird on the ground that you suspect may have hit a window. First, have a “rescue kit” ready so you can act quickly if you see a bird in distress. Keep the following items handy in your car or bag: a paper bag or a small cardboard box with a lid, a tea towel, old t-shirt, or small blanket, and a pair of gloves. They are small things to have, but they can help to save a bird’s life! 

  Be sure to approach the bird slowly and from a safe angle. Even if a bird is stunned, they may still have limited ability to fly so we don’t want them to fly into traffic or back into a window or building again! As soon as you are close enough, drop a small towel or cloth down over top of the bird, completely covering the head and wings. This will help to reduce stress and keep the bird calm. While wearing gloves, pick up the bird in the towel and place them in the paper bag or cardboard box. Fold the top of the bag down and secure it with a paperclip, or close the lid of the box. This is very important- the bird is likely in shock, and needs to be kept as quiet and stress-free as possible during transport. 

As with any injured animal, do not try to give them food or water. A bird with head trauma could drown or choke if they can’t properly hold up their head, and eating improper food items can cause serious medical issues. Keep the bird in a quiet, dark place and transport them to your closest wildlife rehabilitation centre as soon as possible. 

Migratory bird populations are declining all over the world due to climate change, habitat destruction, and human-caused conflicts like window strikes. Keep your eyes open and your rescue kit ready, and be a hero to the birds!

By Rebecca Michelin, CWR | Wildlife Rehabilitation Consultant

Fall Bird Migration

By Jasmine Lee, Communications Intern

Fall migration, the large-scale movement of birds from their summer breeding homes to their winter grounds is part of an annual cycle that is undertaken by more than half of all the birds in North America. Unfortunately, it is estimated that in the U.S. alone, one billion birds die each year as a result of collisions with glass windows, walls, and other structures, with numbers typically spiking during migration months. At the Schuylkill Center and the Wildlife Clinic, warblers of all kinds, flycatchers, woodcocks, and even hummingbirds are passing through as they make their way down south for the winter. 

As a student at the University of Pennsylvania obtaining my Masters in Environmental Studies, I have a special interest in birdwatching and ornithology, in addition to my career interests in conservation science. Back in March, I moved from West Philly back to my parents suburban New Jersey home due to the pandemic, and I was excited to spend some time closer to nature, as opposed to the bustling city streets. Using a recycled glass beer bottle, I fashioned a homemade bird feeder to attract some feathered friends for the spring.

Homemade bird feeder: birdseed comes out from the bottle and into the tray.

Attaching it to the trees in our yard posed a problem, as the squirrels had easy access to the birdseed tray and would often scare off any potential bird visitors. I decided to use an old patio umbrella frame to secure the bird feeder so it was away from any branches where the squirrels could jump onto it.

Feeder attached to umbrella frame. Bag of finch food hanging off to the side. 

Within hours of setting up the frame and feeder, we saw a cardinal munching from the food tray. I stayed at our kitchen table all morning so I could watch the feeder through the window.

Northern Cardinal

Brown-headed cowbird on feeder, American goldfinch on finch food bag

We did continue to fight the squirrels on occasion, when they tried to climb the umbrella pole. Eventually, we removed the bottle because it encouraged them to to climb up and gorge themselves.  Now, my dad puts out a handful of seeds for the birds each day, but not enough to tempt the squirrels.

Now that it is October, the feeder is less busy, although we do still see the occasional fall migrant passing through. We are looking forward to springtime next year, when the migratory songbirds return. 

As part of our #YearOfActionChallenge, the Schuylkill Center encourages you to take some actions to help protect our travelling feathery friends. 

  1. Urge your senators to co-sponsor the Bird-Safe Buildings Act requiring public buildings to incorporate bird-friendly building designs and materials.
  2. Apply decals, window guards, uv-coverings or other collision preventing materials to windows to make glass more visible to birds and reduce the chances of flying into them.

3. Turn off the lights! Many birds migrate at night, and can become disorientated by bright artificial lights, increasing the chances they will collide with a window. Whenever possible turn off excess exterior lights and reduce interior lights at night, especially those on higher floors or in building atriums. Visit Lights Out- Audubon to learn more.

Finch conjunctivitis requires isolation, too

A recent patient, an American Goldfinch, with conjunctivitis.

A recent patient, an American Goldfinch, with conjunctivitis.

Wildlife rehabilitators are well aware of the potential for disease transmission between humans and wildlife as well as between individual animals- it is a calculated risk we take in the course of our daily work.

For example, we routinely practice isolation and quarantine in the wildlife clinic when we admit an animal with a contagious disease such as finch conjunctivitis, as was the case with this female American goldfinch.  She arrived in early March with both her eyes so swollen and crusted she could hardly see. She needed to be isolated from all our other patients, and we changed gloves every time we treated her or cleaned her cage, and sanitized everything she came in contact with. Since she had to be isolated, we provided as much environmental enrichment for her as we could to keep her stress-free while she recovered. After three weeks of daily treatment, she was in excellent condition and was released in the same area she was originally found. 

We routinely practice isolation and quarantine in the wildlife clinic when we admit an animal with a contagious disease.

Finch conjunctivitis can be transferred by direct contact and from contaminated surfaces. You can help prevent the spread of this disease in wild birds by making sure your bird feeders are properly cleaned; discard old, wet or moldy seed, wash feeders with hot soapy water once a week and sanitize with a 10% bleach solution to help keep your backyard birds healthy.

She was released 3 weeks later in excellent condition.

She was released 3 weeks later in excellent condition.


Winter Bird Census

With leaves falling and the forest turning into a blanket of white snow, it becomes a great time for bird watching. Birds need to be active and feeding in order to stay warm in blistering winter temperatures, and the contrast of their feathers against the white snow and bare trees makes them easier to observe along our trails. In our annual census, we’ll monitor the abundance of bird species that winter in our forests and fields. All of the information we collect will be shared with other citizen scientists, helping us to better understand how our local bird populations change over time. Warm drinks and snacks provided. Registration is appreciated.

Register now_green




In the event of heavy rain or snow, the census will be rescheduled for Saturday, January 25.


2019 Bird Census Results

by Ben Vizzachero, Environmental Educator

On the morning of June 1st, staff and volunteers completed the Schuylkill Center’s Nesting Bird Survey. Birders of all experience levels come out to participate in this annual citizen science project. Birding is one of the most popular ways to engage with the natural world. Read this article by Jack Connor to learn more about why birding is so great (warning: you may shed a tear).

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

To complete the count, participants break up into five groups and walk through all major areas of the Schuylkill Center’s property. As they go, they count all birds they can identify by sounds or sight. This year, participants also decided to begin recording notes about breeding behavior, using a standardized set of breeding codes. Each code refers to a specific categorized observation and can indicate confirmed breeding activity (such as finding a nest with eggs), probably breeding activity (such as breeding displays or territorial behavior), or potential breeding behavior (such as a singing male). All this information is entered into, which makes it available to the public and researchers studying population and migration trends. Years of Schuylkill Center bird surveys allow us to recognize long term changes in abundance.

Male American Redstart

Male American Redstart

This year, participants detected many declining migratory songbirds, including Scarlet Tanager, Wood Thrush, Veery, American Redstart, and Eastern Towhee. They confirmed breeding activity for 14 species including Blue Jay, Tree Swallow, House Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, American Robin, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, House Finch, Field Sparrow, Common Grackle, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Northern Cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

House Finch

House Finch










One volunteer detected a possible Red-tailed Hawk nest location on the north side of Meigs run. Other highlights including a singing Warbling Vireo, a pair of Willow Flycatchers, a Prairie Warbler, and a pair of flyover Greater Black-backed Gulls.

Red Tailed Hawk

Red Tailed Hawk

Unfortunately, participants did not detect a number of expected migrants, including Eastern Phoebe, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. These absences may be indicative of widespread migratory songbird declines.

Overall, this year’s Bird Survey was a success: we compiled an admirable amount of data, and had fun in the process! Birding is both a great recreational pastime and an important avenue for citizen science. We encourage you to go outside and look up at the sky today–you may be surprised by how many birds you see, and how much diversity!

Winter Bird Seed Sale

Save on birdseed, seed mixes, and suet—in quantities from 4 to 50 lb. bags. Members receive 20% off birdseed and non-members receive 10% off birdseed. To ensure you get the quantity of birdseed you need, place an order in advance by calling 215-482-7300 by Monday, February 11. While you’re picking up your birdseed, stop in and browse our great selection of bird feeders, birdhouses and nature gifts.

Order your bird seed now! Fill out this form and send to [email protected]

More on birdseed here.