How North America Lost 3 Billion Birds, And How Pittsburgh Can Help

Sep 24, 2019

On today's program: New prison parole policies could follow in the wake of recent homicides; a deadly mosquito-born virus has moved into Pennsylvania; Open Doors Pittsburgh returns with new spaces and insider tours; and what locals can do to support disappearing migratory bird populations.

'Horrendous' crimes represent the worst that can happen, not the norm
(00:00 — 12:35) 

Pennsylvania Corrections Sec. John Wetzel wants the legislature to adopt changes to state parole policies. The recommendations follow an internal review that found no evidence of misconduct or policy violations in the department's dealings with five recent parolees who, in separate incidents, are accused of killing six people over 10 days this summer.

Wetzel calls the homicides “horrendous, almost unthinkable crimes,” but says they represent five unrelated circumstances. In four cases, he says, the alleged perpetrators showed no evidence that they'd need additional supervision.

Pennsylvania averages about 100 homicides per year committed by people who were formerly incarcerated, he says, and the state is still on track for those figures again in 2019. Despite "no major systemic breakdowns" in these incidents, he's proposing the following: 

  • creating a statewide database of parolees to help law enforcement quickly identify whether a person is on parole;
  • reducing the amount of time it takes for a parole absconder to be reported to the fugitive taskforce from 30 days to 15; and
  • placing GPS monitors on parolees who are accused of domestic violence but aren’t detained pending a court ruling on a request for protection from abuse order.

Rare, deadly virus found in three Pennsylvania counties 
(13:57 — 17:40) 

A virus that can lead to serious neurological problems or death in humans has been found in Erie, Carbon and Monroe counties. 

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Boden reports that Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE, is transmitted by mosquitos and has been confirmed in two horses and two birds. University of Pittsburgh immunologist William Klimstra tells Boden that while it’s somewhat normal to find EEE in Erie County, it’s less common in other parts of the state. To avoid infection, people should wear insect repellent with DEET and get rid of standing water.

Get ‘nebby’ inside some of Pittsburgh’s most storied buildings
(17:50 — 30:47) 

Pittsburghers whiz by pillars of architectural history every day, but their annual chance to stop and look up–and inside–some of these storied buildings returns Oct. 5 and 6. Doors Open Pittsburgh offers a peek around old buildings like Koppers, old Kaufmann’s and the Oliver.

Founder Bonnie Baxter says the insider tours garner similar reactions every year.

“The responses are, ‘I had no idea. I’ve lived here my entire life, I’ve never gone down that street, I’ve never walked into that building.’ And that’s really what the impetus of this event is.”

Historian Mark Houser is leading a ticketed tour that features the top of the Oliver Building, the tallest designed by architect Daniel Burnham in America. Tourists can get an up-close glimpse at the extravagant cornice on the rooftop of the building, which Houser says is hard to spot from the sidewalk.

“It’ll give people an appreciation for the diverse architecture styles we have here in Pittsburgh,” Baxter says. “Each of these buildings has a cool story. And what we also find, too, is that when people are coming through, they begin sharing their stories of the building.” 

Some tours are ticketed, but Baxter says many are self-guided and free.

3 billion birds have vanished from North America
(30:50 — 39:10) 

In a sweeping study published in the the journal Science last week, scientists found the number of birds in the United States and Canada has declined by 2.9 billion, or 29 percent, in the last 48 years. Co-authors, including the American Bird Conservancy, report the population decline is far greater than anyone previously realized.

Jordan Rutter, ABC director of public relations, says people living along migratory paths like those winding through Pittsburgh, have a big role to play in preventing further declines.

"For birds, habitat loss means that they don't have safe places to live," she says. "We need to recognize what we are seeing as well as plan for the future and recognize what may come if we don't act now." 

She says everyone can play a role in habitat protection by watching for invasive species, free-roaming cats, pesticides and glass or other structures that could cause collisions.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.