Monday, May 30, 2011

Sizing up songbirds: My favorite trick for identifying birds

What's the first thing you notice when you glimpse a strange bird?

Not too long ago, I didn't know a black-capped chickadee from a Dark-eyed Junco.   Of course, I knew a hummingbird when I saw one, and I was familiar with gulls and crows.  But I spent too much time in the heart of the city, and I wasn't very good at being still long enough to really see the smaller songbirds around me.

Now, I probably recognize a dozen or more species of songbirds on sight -- sometimes just by the way they move or fly.  And though I'm not a very good "by ear" birder, I have learned the songs and calls of many of my most familiar species.

Color and movement command attention.  But are they the best keys to identification?
But a couple of unusual visitors in the past week have gotten me to thinking about the perennial bird watcher's question:  what is the best way to identify a bird in the field?  If you look around at bird books and blogs and magazines you will find endless information and advice on this topic -- much of it very good.  But, as a novice myself, I thought it might be helpful to say something about how I have learned to do it in the past year.  

So again, what's the first thing you notice when you catch sight of an unknown bird?

Probably color.  Color demands our attention.  And movement.  Location, in a tree, in a bush, on the ground.  Songs and calls.  All of these are vital clues.  But the problem is that there's so much relevant information, and often our chance to observe the bird is so brief, that it can be hard to know what we should pay attention to first.

I've learned a little trick that works very well for me, and often provides a key to figuring out a bird's identity.  It's not unique to me -- I've done a lot of reading in the past year and had the opportunity to pick the brains of people who know a lot more than I do -- but I've been able to adapt it to my area and habits.  What I've done is train myself to ask a different question first, one that's not nearly as instinctive as some of the others: How big is this bird?

Bushtits are the smallest songbirds in North America.
Among songbirds, size is crucial.  Knowing the approximate size dramatically narrows the possibilities.  Then the other things I notice -- color patterns, movement, location, song -- all become much more useful, because there are a lot less candidates to choose from.

If you're like I was, you're thinking, "How in the world do you expect me to guess the size of a bird that I see for less than a minute a hundred feet away?"  In my mind, when I started out, all small birds were "sparrows" and I was convinced I couldn't tell them apart.  Little did I know there was a whole galaxy of smaller-than-sparrow species to learn.

The trick is, you don't have to know how big a bird is in centimeters or fractions of a gram.  All you have to know is relative size.  How big is the bird compared to species you already know?  If you can place him between two species you know, then the task of identifying him becomes much simpler.

Everyone knows Robins, which makes them the perfect beginning metric for birdwatchers.
In my head, I have gradually built up a scale.  It will be a little different depending on where you live, and what birds you're familiar with.  But you don't have to know a lot of birds to start.  Two or three species is enough to start making valuable guesses about size.  (Even something as simple as "Is it bigger or smaller than a Robin?" can be very valuable.)

Crows are the largest songbirds most city-people see regularly.
For instance, in my neighborhood, the smallest songbirds around are bushtits.  (Actually they're the smallest songbirds in North America, about the size of an Anna's Hummingbird.)  And the largest songbirds are Crows.  (There are occasional Raven sightings out here in West Seattle, but they are very rare.)  Around here, if it's bigger than a crow, it's not a songbird.  You're into groups like hawks and gulls then.

My personal scale runs -- roughly -- like this:  Bushtits, Black-Capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, House Sparrows, Robins, Steller's Jays, Crows.   This is a pretty good scale for where I live.  Nine times out of ten, if I get a good look (or a good photo) I can pretty quickly place the bird on my scale.

So when I glimpse that unknown visitor in the cherry tree, I ask myself about his size.  I know he's bigger than a House Sparrow, not quite as big as a Robin.  Once I know that, I can easily leverage whatever other information I have -- orange chest, black head and wings, white bars on the wings -- into a good identification:  That's a Black-Headed Grosbeak.

And what could be more satisfying to a bird watcher than that?

(I'd love to hear some of your favorite aids to identification.  Feel free to leave them in the comments.)


If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hawks and Crows

Crows coming from all directions to answer an alarm call.
It finally got warm enough in Seattle that I needed to open all the doors and windows last week.  (Friday it passed 70 degrees for the first time since last November).  In the early afternoon I was working in the back of the house when I heard an ungodly racket outside.  I looked out the back door, and saw crows flying in from all directions.  They were cawing and raising the alarm, and it looked like they were headed right for my house.  When I got outside they were wheeling overhead, taking turns diving at the upper branches of the tall dogwood tree next door.  I couldn't see what they were after, but I had a good suspicion what it might be.
I've seen this before.  Even though crows are spread thinner here than they are in the more urban parts of the city, they can gather very quickly in a crisis.  And when the crows are upset, it pays to follow them.  

Once, when I was in the park with my friend and our two dogs, we heard the crows raising hell and followed the sound to a tall tree just off the path.  A  Barred Owl was hunkered down in the crook of a branch, being harried by crows.  Just to make the tableau even more magical, a hummingbird was darting around in the upper branches, picking out insects, oblivious to all the noise the larger creatures were making (as hummingbirds often are). 

Crows "counting coup" on an unseen enemy.

You don't always get quite that much pay off, but every time I've ever seen an owl in the wild, it's been because crows led me to them.  And they can lead you to other big predators too.

Red-Tailed Hawk (at bottom) pursued by angry crows.

One afternoon last fall the crows started raising a ruckus.  This time, they were zeroing in on a tree across the street -- one that has an old abandoned crow nest in the top, which you can see in the winter when the leaves are gone.  They swirled around and attacked that tree for half an hour or more, before their quarry got tired and made  break for it.  That time, I was able to chase the fleeing bird with my camera as the crows chased him across the sky.  When I got the pictures uploaded and zoomed in, I could tell exactly what it was:  A Red-Tailed Hawk.

Young Cooper's Hawk from last summer.

 Hawks are not uncommon in Seattle.  I took these photos of a young Cooper's Hawk in Westcrest Park, just up the hill from where I live, late last summer.  While I was watching him, he was calling and responding to at least one other Hawk that I never saw.  As birds go around here, the big hawks like Cooper's and Red-Tails are pretty much apex predators.  Top of the food chain.  Of course, there are Bald Eagles in the city too, but they're more interested in carrion and when they do go after prey it's usually fish -- size and the whole national symbol thing notwithstanding, they just aren't the hunter's that the big hawks are. North of here, in the San Juan Islands, and across the mountains in Eastern Washington, there are Golden Eagles, enormous birds and very serious hunters.  But you almost never see them around the city.  (I've had the privilege of being very close to both Bald and Golden Eagles while volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center -- I've also been close to hawks, and have even handled some of the smaller hawks.  But I've never handled anything as big as Red-Tail or a Cooper's Hawk.)

Hawks and crows are on the opposite ends of the sociability spectrum.  Raptors tend to be solitary, or to live as mated pairs.  Both Cooper's and Red-Tails are believed to mate for life, a pair staying together until one of them dies.  But crows are among the most social of birds, and that is really where their advantage comes in.  The larger and more powerful raptors are no match for a mob of crows.  (And mob is really the appropriate word.)  I find this fascinating because it seems so similar to what probably gave humans the edge in our early history -- we weren't stronger or faster or more powerful than most of the animals around us, but we were smarter, and we knew how to work together.  Crow are one of the most intelligent birds, and they seem to understand the value of cooperative behavior.  (I've read accounts of crows hunting in small groups, forcing smaller birds to fly into buildings so they can eat them.)  

I've spent a lot of time watching and following crows.  They almost always lead me to something interesting.



If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Adventures with bird feeders

When I moved to West Seattle last year, I wanted to put up bird feeders.  But I didn't know anything about them.  For many years I lived in urban neighborhoods not at all suited for feeders.  My old neighborhood, in Ballard, was so busy with feral cats that I never wanted to attract more birds. So I was definitely starting from scratch.

I also had a limited budget.  The move strapped finances, so I wasn't ready to sink a lot of money into a new hobby.  I wanted to start as simply and inexpensively as possible.  

With no real idea what I needed, I stopped by the Home Depot.  I had done a little looking online.  The first thing I learned was:  you can spend as much money on bird feeders and paraphernalia as you want.  You can easily spend a fortune.  But I didn't have a fortune.

I'd already had some adventures with the chickadees in my neighborhood.
I also didn't know what kind of feeders I wanted.  Not having much experience, and not knowing what kind of birds to expect, I was stymied by all the choices.  There was only one thing I did know -- there were chickadees in my neighborhood.  Black-capped chickadees, and I had already had some adventures with them.  (I'll tell you more about that later).  So I decided, for a start, to buy feeders that would appeal to chickadees.

Perky-Pet Sierra Wild Bird Feeder
What I ended up with were the cheapest, most versatile feeders I could find.  At the Home Depot I found the Perky-Pet Sierra Wild Bird Feeder.  (See here or here).  They are plastic, pretty cheaply made, but work well and are easy for a beginner to figure out.  I managed to destroy one of them by sitting it on the rail of my deck where it blew off and crashed to the sidewalk below.  But they are versatile -- they can be used both as mixed-feed songbird feeders and as finch-style thistle seed feeders (the feeding ports flip up and down).  I had my first feeder operating almost at once (which I wasn't entirely sure I could do).  And, they are very inexpensive.  They were priced from three to five dollars at different stores.  This turned out to be good, because they suffered a heavy mortality rate in my yard.

Chickadees discovered these feeders quickly.  A day or two after I put them up, the chickadees came calling -- first one or two, then a steady stream.  Dark-eyed Juncos were close behind.  (The Juncos also like eating the seed that falls to the ground underneath.) Over the course of the winter, my feeders (I also added a suet feeder at some point) logged 17 species, a number of which I had never seen before in the wild. (See my "Yard List" here).  

Rock Pigeons were a problem at first, they would raid the feeders and spill all the food, but once we closed up the hole in our attic and evicted the pigeons, they moved on and we didn't have any more problems.  During the coldest part of the winter, Northern Flickers came to visit the feeders.  Seeing them twisting around to eat out the little songbird ports was a comical sight.  (They're even more fond of the suet feeders.)

Enter the villain of the piece.  Sometime during the winter the squirrels in my neighborhood discovered the feeders, and when they did, things got ugly.  First, I noticed that food was disappearing very quickly.  I caught the squirrels lurking around, but I wasn't overly concerned.  I didn't care that much if they ate some of the feed.  Then I started to notice damage to the feeders.  The inexpensive plastic was easy pickings for rodents.  One day, I went out to discover the feeder totally destroyed.  All the perches gnawed off and the ports torn up.  It was especially impressive since I had photos of the feeder from the day before showing it to be whole and intact.  Whoever destroyed it worked fast.

It wasn't long before I caught him in the act.

I tried switching feed to find something less attractive to the squirrels, but the birds didn't like it as much as the mixed fruit and nut type I was using, and the squirrels, now that they had discovered the feeders would not be discouraged.  I started losing feeders at an alarming rate.  Since they are inexpensive, I bought a lot of them, so I could replace them quickly, but it soon became clear that I was losing the war of attrition.  The inexpensive solution was not so inexpensive any more. 

I replaced the Sierra feeders with another model. Birdscapes Copper Festival Mixed Seed Bird Feeder. (See it here, and here). It costs a bit more -- almost twenty dollars at Home Depot.   In design, it's similar to the Perky-Pet model -- a plastic sheath with perches and ports.  But the external parts -- the perches and port openings -- are brass.  Squirrels aren't going to chew them up.  At first, I was afraid that the birds didn't like the new feeder -- there seemed to be a sharp drop in attendance when I put it out.  But within a week they were all back, and I haven't had any complaints since.  I've caught the squirrels on it more than once, but they can't destroy it, which is all I wanted.

I've been happy with the results of these feeders.  Now, with Summer coming on, I want to branch out, try some new kinds of feeders and new locations.

I'll let you know what I find out.


If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Saturday, May 14, 2011


(This post is partially a follow-up to my earlier Corvid post Dog Days, Raven Nights.)

Since we were talking about Corvids, let's talk about crows.  

There is a local Seattle writer -- Lyanda Lynn Haupt -- who wrote a great book called Crow Planet.  I was lucky enough to see her at Elliott Bay Bookstore just after the book came out.  (She also has a wonderful blog focused on "new home economics" called "The Tangled Nest".  Everyone should check it out.)  Lyanda Haupt shares one of my great interests -- the way we interact on a daily basis with wildlife, and the often surprising ways that we share our urban space with other creatures.  

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
Crow Planet
In her book, she recounts how she decided to treat every trip out of her house, around town, the way a naturalist would treat going into the field.  She took her binoculars with her everywhere.  And of course, living in the city, the easiest creature to observe is the crow.  They are so amazing, and so creative, as Ms. Haupt maintains, that anyone who spends much time observing them is guaranteed to see them doing something that no one has ever seen or recorded before.

I'm not really fond of binoculars.  I prefer my camera.  Since moving from Ballard to West Seattle, I've had less chance to observe crows than I used to.  They're here, to be sure, but they are not the dominant form of wildlife that they are in Ballard.  The crows here co-exist with a much wider range of bird life than they do in more urban areas, including other highly intelligent, assertive species like Steller's Jays.  And for some reason, the crows that are around don't like my front yard, which is much lower than the sidewalk and forms a closed in depression.  They prefer the open, sloping yards on the other side of the street.

Crow business.
Yesterday, however, I got a great opportunity to observe a crow going about his typical crow business.  (I say "he" -- honestly, it is nearly impossible to tell the sex of a crow.  I've held them in my hands and would have no idea of their gender.  Typically male crows are a little larger on average, but the variation in crow size is great enough that size won't really do you much good in sexing them).  

Lulubelle and Zeke survey the neighborhood.
 It was a beautiful afternoon and there was a Mariners game on the radio (they lost it in thirteen innings -- the second overtime loss this week -- sigh).  My dogs were enjoying the afternoon on the front deck, and I knocked off work a little early to join them.  At one point my dog Lulubelle started barking ferociously -- which usually means there's another dog around -- or she's seen the rat or a squirrel -- but this time she was barking at a crow which had landed on top of my old blue Subaru.  Her ruckus scared the crow away, but a few minutes later he was back, and this time he landed on my neighbor's trash can.  After that, the pictures pretty much speak for themselves.

Crows are omnivores, of course, like humans.  They will eat just about anything.  (But they can be picky.  For instance, a study at the University of Washington found that given a choice between fried potatoes in a plain white sack, and the same potatoes in a brightly colored fast food sack, crows will almost always go for the fast food sack.) 

In some of the pictures, this crow seems to have blue eyes.  That might just be a trick of the light, but if his eyes are really still blue, it means he's still a young crow,  a fledgling.  But I didn't see any other crows around at that time, and it would be unlikely for a fledgling to be out all alone.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, by the way, has written two other very good books.  Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, and Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent.  I would encourage all bird and wildlife lovers to check out her work.  She has a wonderful sensibility for the urban naturalist.


Hawks and Crows
Dog Days and Raven Nights
Sizing Up Songbirds

I am very pleased to announce that Birdland West hit a new milestone recently:  We had more than 100 hits in a single day.  That means there are a lot of you out there who are at least stopping by to check us out now and then.  If you like the blog I would encourage you to follow us, and leave feedback.  I'd love to hear input from the people who read Birdland West.  And if you really like us, then share us with others.  Feel free to pass us on by word of mouth, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever means you prefer. You might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dog Days, Raven Nights

I've been sick the last few days so I haven't had much chance to get out in the yard.  Still, spring is going on and the flowers are blooming.  The cherry tree outside my living room window is in full bloom and looking very beautiful.  

Dog Days, Raven Nights
Dog Days, Raven Nights
I did attend a very interesting event at Seattle's Town Hall last week.  Every once in a while you hear about a book that seems so perfect that you think it could have been written just for you.  That's how I felt when I saw the title of John and Colleen Marzluff's new book Dog Days, Raven Nights.  It's the story of two young scientists (John and Colleen) who set out to the Maine woods in search of Ravens, and who become involved along the way with dog sledding and sled dogs.  Corvids and canines in one book!

In the Company of Crows and Ravens
In the Company of Crows and Ravens
For those of you who don't know about John Marzluff, he teaches at the University of Washington in the College of the Environment, where he is a professor of Wildlife Biology.  He is also one of the world's leading experts on crows and other corvids.  His previous book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, which he wrote with local artist Tony Angell (you have to check out his artwork if you never have:  here) helped spark my interest in crows and eventually other birds as well.  There's also a great episode of the PBS show Nature that focuses on his work with crows here in Seattle. (Check it out here)  He and his students have done some great experiments, tagging and recording crows to learn more about their lives.  I recommend this show to anyone who's interested in very intelligent birds.  

For the Town Hall event though, they were talking about their new book, so the focus was mostly on Ravens.  Twenty years ago, when Marzluff was a young Postdoc looking for his first job, he and his wife Colleen travelled to Maine to work with the famous biologist Bernd Heinrich (you can see my review of Heinrich's own book about the time, Ravens in Winter at our sister blog Booksand Beasts).  

Crows are omnivores, and frequently scavenge road-kill.
When I lived in Ballard, a much more urban area, crows were definitely the most dominant birds around.  In fact, in Ballard, there is a running squabble between crows and seagulls that is fascinating to watch.   Crows, in my experience (and Marzluff seems to agree with this) are almost unique among wild animals in the amount of attention they pay to human beings.  They really do seem to be curious about us, and to go out of their way to observe us and interact with us.  Marzluff believes that crows (and ravens too, and maybe some other species as well) are co-evolving with humans.  Ravens follow wolf packs and other predators in search of food, so it's very likely that they learned to follow early human groups for the same reason.  Crows are even more closely bound to us.  They have literally followed us across the continent (the American Crow -- the bird almost everyone is familiar with -- is native to the Eastern United states, but like the Virginia Opossum and the Eastern Gray Squirrel it now resides almost everywhere we do.)  Crows have become the consummate urban bird, and the stories of their intelligence and cunning are endless.

While living in Maine, Colleen Marzluff also became involved in raising and racing sled dogs.  Anyone who has ever taken a walk (or a drive) across town with me knows that I can be instantly distracted by the sight of an interesting dog.  (Okay, all dogs are interesting).  But if a Malamute happens by, you've lost my attention entirely.  Learning to drive a dog sled is one of my bucket list items.  This part of the book, as well as the fascinating descriptions of the work with the Ravens, could have been written just for me.

Steller's Jays are also members of the Corvid family.
I got to speak to Marzluff briefly at the book signing and I mentioned the frequent Raven sightings in West Crest Park, just up the hill form me here in West Seattle.  He told me that there was a pair of crows nesting on Mercer Island, which might be crossing over to West Seattle.  But he also told me that someone else had reported a pair in Lincoln Park (which is just down the hill from me).  He was very interested in learning more about any ravens nesting in this area, and so am I.  So if any West Seattle readers (if I have any) know anything more about ravens in West Crest or Lincoln Parks, or anywhere in the area, I'd love to hear from you.

Like Ravens in Winter, which is one of my favorite non-fiction books, Dog Days, Raven Nights is a wonderful book for getting a taste of what the day to day work of doing science in the field is really like.  And the book is full of sled dogs and ravens.  What more could you ask?

Related Posts

And on Books and Beasts
Ravens in Winter

(Many of the original photograph featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Invaders (Part Three of Three)

The third entry in our environmental "Axis of Evil" goes by many names.  The Brown Rat, the Wharf Rat, the Common Rat, the Norway Rat (even though his species probably originated in Asia), the Hanover Rat, and probably more.  Officially, he is  rattus norvegicus and with the possible exception of human beings, he and his kin are the most widely distributed and successful mammals on the planet.  

Rrattus norvegicus likes to forage close to his burrows and will use the same paths so frequently that visible paths develop on the ground.

There happens to be one rattus norvegicus (at least one) living under the fence in my front yard.  If you can get past the instinctive animosity some people feel toward his kind, he is actually a pretty handsome fellow.  A close relative of hamsters, gerbils, true mice and other rats, he belongs to the murroid superfamily of rodents, and collectively they occupy a wide range of habitats and have prospered on every continent except Antarctica. 

Lab rats and mice have been shown to be capable of some degree of empathy.
The Norway Rat (no one seems to be quite sure where he got that name) is the ultimate example of the creature who has learned to prosper in the world that man has built.  They have been our nemesis for as long as we've been settled, crop growing animals (it was undoubtedly the threat that rats and mice posed to grain stores that led to the unlikely alliance between humans and cats in ancient Egypt -- an alliance which is not without its own environmental costs in today's world).  He has been blamed for disease and plague and is almost the symbol of cringing, dirty lowlifes.  ("You dirty rat!")  And though living in close proximity to rats -- especially rats nurtured on the refuse of human civilization -- can be unhealthy, I don't think rattus norvegicus really deserves his unsavory reputation.  When you come right down to it, he has a lot in common with us.

Rats build elaborate systems of burrows which they like to line with shredded paper, leaves or other fibrous materials.  Depending on their population density they can be polygamous (one male rat monopolizing many females) or polyandrous (each female when she comes into heat mates with as many males as can manage).  They are highly adaptable, changing their behavior and social structure to meet changing situations.  Rats, and their cousins mice, had been shown to possess something that looks like empathy, an ability to recognize and respond to the suffering of others, especially individuals they are closely acquainted with.

Rrattus norvegicus is highly adaptable and social.
Rats are mostly nocturnal, although like the rest of their behavior they can adapt to being active in the daytime, if population densities are high, if food in plentiful and if there is little danger of predation.  They usually don't wander more than a few hundred yards from their burrows, and they favor the same paths so much that they form visible trails on the ground.  

Wherever humans have gone, rats have followed.
If you look up the Common rat on the Internet -- no matter which of his many names you use -- you will find that way more than half of the hits you find involve ways to eliminate and control rattus norvegicus. He has followed us everywhere around the world, and we have used him as a scapegoat, a lab animal, a metaphor, and even a pet.  We have crated environments in which rats thrive, but in which they also become carriers of disease.  We often seem to blame rattus norvegicus for the squalor he sometimes lives in -- which is, after all, only our refuse.  We built the dumps, the wharfs and the slums.  He only learned to live there.

The rat in my front yard, though, is living in clean dirt and eating the seed that falls from my bird feeders.  For the moment, I'm enjoying having him around.

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Flickers, Rats and Starlings