UW Combined Fund Drive

April 19, 2021

Birding in the Pacific Northwest

Barred Owl: Tara Tanaka/Audubon

No sooner had my wife and I settled in for an episode of The Crown one evening last fall than a call came from the greenbelt behind our house: a plaintive “Who cooks for you?” followed by a more urgent “Who cooks for YOOOUUUU?” Some quick research helped us pinpoint the identity of the caller as a barred owl, a fairly common resident in forests and even some more urbanized areas in our region.

We named our new avian friend Shakespeare, because it seemed funny at the time (“Bard” owl). And, as an increasing number of people do, I added the new bird to my list.

Birdwatching, or “birding,” as it is known to more serious practitioners, is easy, free, and lends itself well to life during a pandemic. Many who had never paid much attention to the feathered visitors in their yards suddenly found themselves working from home and with a lot more time to look out of the window.

CNN noted during last year’s lockdown that “[b]ird-watching is having a moment.”

Getting Started

To those brand new to birdwatching, starting out can seem a little confusing. Some of our spectacular residents, like bald eagles, or very common ones, such as the nearly ubiquitous American crow, are easy to distinguish. But, let’s be honest, a fair number of other birds are smallish, brownish, and look pretty similar to their cousins. So, if you’re not sure if it’s a Western wood-pewee or a Pacific-slope flycatcher that you see (and no, I didn’t just make up either of those), where to start?

The good news is that there are many resources that can help:

  • The venerable Audobon Society’s free app is a complete field guide to more than 800 North American birds.
  • The Cornell Lab’s Merlin app helps you identify birds not just in the U.S., but all around the world.
  • If your main interest is closer to home, and you don’t mind carrying a small book with you, the excellent Birds of the Puget Sound Region is a simple-to-use and color-coded guide to just the birds found locally.
  • For fans of NPR, BirdNote provides brief radio segments that highlight the sounds and stories of birds, as well as podcasts and a great website.

Even the most urban setting can provide ample opportunities to see birds. The aforementioned crows caw noisily to each other while pecking at roadkill or pulling at trash bags. Large glaucous-winged gulls stray inland in search of easy pickings (French fries are a favorite, but of course, are not particularly good for them). One real treat for the eyes is the mesmerizing sight of a flock of thousands of European starlings at dusk, known as a “murmuration.”

And yes, studies really have shown that crows can remember your face, so be nice!

To attract birds to your yard or balcony, the most basic equipment is a feeder. Different bird species have their own favorite foods and prefer distinct styles of feeder, but most large grocery stores will have a selection of seed and suet products along with a variety of feeders.

Northwest Rufous Hummingbird/National Geographic

Tiny aerobatic hummingbirds, two species of which are found in Western Washington and one of those year-round, love little more than a quick drink of sugar-water from a specialized feeder, allowing us to marvel close-up at their abilities to hover and fly backwards.

Earlier this year, backyard bird watchers were advised to remove bird feeders as avian salmonellosis spread among the bird population. Luckily, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has approved the return of bird feeders this month as reports of sick and dead birds have started to decline.

Beyond the Backyard

So you’ve added a feeder and have enjoyed all the chickadees, siskins, finches, towhees, and robins who’ve visited your yard, but you want to expand your horizons. Invest in a good pair of binoculars if you like, but many species can be observed quite well with the naked eye. Puget Sound has an amazing wealth of habitats right on our doorstep:

  • Green Lake and Lake Washington: home to hundreds of mallards, the males’ heads shining iridescent green in the sunlight, but also numerous Canada geese, American coots, and the magnificent great blue heron, which is usually found standing completely still on a log waiting for the right moment to strike for fish.
  • Local beaches: distinctive sights are herons, gulls, cormorants (who can often be seen posing with their wings outstretched in the sun on the pilings at ferry docks), and many different species of waders and shorebirds foraging for shellfish.
  • The Great Washington Birding Trail: Along the Great Washington State Birding Trail, you’ll find the best places for the best bird watching in the Evergreen State. Described in full-color maps with original artwork by Ed Newbold, birds are identified along seven routes, plus descriptions of habitat, access, and when to go.
  • Forests and the foothills: you don’t have to go far to enter a whole different world of bird-spotting opportunities. You’ll hear the pileated woodpecker, the largest in the region, and its staccato taps on trees before you see its vivid crimson crest. The highly intelligent Steller’s Jay, pretty to look at but generously classed as a “songbird”, is a common sight in both forests and parks. And if you remain in a forest as the light fades, you too may hear Shakespeare and friends asking “Who cooks for you?”

Stellar’s Jay: Rollin Bannow/Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

Numerous scientific studies have detailed the health benefits of time outdoors, but a few have gone even further to address specific benefits from living near birds. A British study found mental health improved when people were able to see birds and trees around their homes. Also in the UK, doctors in the remote Shetland Islands have prescribed birdwatching, among other outdoor pursuits, in conjunction with more traditional treatments for depression and anxiety.

Early in the pandemic last spring, when lockdowns were at their most stringent, businesses were mostly closed, and fewer cars were on the roads, many people noted that birdsong seemed louder, clearer, and brighter. Although we humans were impacted greatly, our local birds carried on with business as usual: mating, nesting, feeding, and singing. And our lives, in a dark time, were a little bit richer for it.


You can support research and conservation efforts on behalf of wildlife through payroll deduction or a one-time gift to any of the following UWCFD member organizations:

Audubon Washington (charity code 0314996): Engage people in Washington state to learn about and protect birds and habitat. With your help, we continue to save habitat, celebrate birds, educate in diverse communities, and steward our great natural heritage. A member organization of EarthShare Washington.

American Bird Conservancy (charity code 1480334): Protecting native wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas, through reserve creation, habitat restoration, and threat reduction, leading public/private conservation partnerships to get results.

Defenders Of Wildlife (charity code 0314961): Working since 1947 to save America’s endangered animals and their threatened habitat for future generations through public education, citizen advocacy, legal action and scientific research. A member organization of EarthShare Washington.

Contributed by Simon Reeve-Parker