Left: Male Violet-green Swallow. Right: Female Violet-green Swallow. Both photos by Alan Vernon.

Left: Male Violet-green Swallow. Right: Female Violet-green Swallow. Both photos by Alan Vernon.


And…action!

It’s always a production when swallows return to the Pacific Northwest each spring.

Our first glimpses of their arrival is often while they’re “performing”: swooping and looping through the air like the happy, noisy, carefree daredevils they are, chasing their food on the wing. They bring to mind a medieval circus troupe putting on airs as they enter a village, already dancing to get the attention of the townsfolk.

The Violet-green was the first species of swallow to show up in our neighborhood this year, claiming prime nesting spots before their Barn Swallow cousins could arrive. As their aerial maneuvers cast spiraling shadows on our sunny lawn, I soon realized it was a group of six or seven that had arrived together, and they’ve been putting on their shows ever since.

And while we’re on the subject of performers, I must say that the Violet-green seems best suited to be one more than any other swallow – especially the male, who arrives in full costume and makeup. Maybe too much makeup. For some time now, his get-up has reminded me of a certain Batman nemesis…possibly this one:

Photo of Jack Nicholson as the Joker courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo of male Violet-green Swallow: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Photo of Jack Nicholson as the Joker courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo of male Violet-green Swallow: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds


Far from being a joker, this beautiful and cheerful bird is a true delight and nothing to summon Batman for. The most trouble Violet-greens are likely to get into is when they attempt to nest where they shouldn’t, like the one above, whom we recently found in our garage. He was quickly let out and all was well. (The bird, that is, not Jack Nicholson. He may still be in there somewhere.)

Read on to learn more about the lively Violet-green Swallow.

Scientific name: Tachycineta thalassina
Family: HIRUNDINIDAE

Size and markings: The Violet-green Swallow is 4.5 – 5 inches long with a wingspan of 10.5 inches. Its iridescent upperparts are a greenish-bronze with touches of violet on the shoulders. The rump and upper tail are also tinged with violet and surrounded by white on each side. The male’s head is a full green, often a slightly different shade than the green on his back, which can appear more teal in color. The female’s head is lighter with bronze coloring on her crown. The bill is small and black. Wings are long and its tail is forked. Its underparts are white, as is the face, with the white reaching over the eye. At the front of the eye is a dark spot, most noticeable on the male.

Food: The diet of the Violet-green Swallow consists of flying insects, which it catches on the wing (while flying).

Swallows & Martins: An Identification Guide and Handbook by Angela Turner and Chris Rose

Swallows & Martins: An Identification Guide and Handbook by Angela Turner and Chris Rose


Habitat/nesting/behavior: Suburban areas and even cities will find this swallow returning year after year to the same nesting sites. It will choose nesting boxes, crevices in buildings, ledges in open carports, and available tree cavities. Its nest is woven together with twigs, rootlets, and grasses, and then lined with soft feathers.

Number of broods per year: 1-2

Number of eggs per year: 4-6

Migratory pattern: The Violet-green Swallow spends its summers in western North America, nesting from northern Mexico all the way to Alaska. It also lives year-round in much of Mexico, where the swallows who’ve migrated will return for winter. Watch for this bird to return to the Pacific Northwest starting in late April (or earlier) into May, when you’ll see it sitting on power lines or swooping acrobatically above its chosen territory as it chases food and chirps excitedly.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: The Violet-green Swallow is not a feeder bird, but you can still be thrilled by the acrobatics of this suburban nester during the late spring and summer months.


Male Violet-green Swallow by Alan Vernon (By Alan Vernon – Male Violet green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15273911)

Female Violet-green Swallow by Alan Vernon (By Alan Vernon – Female Violet green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)Uploaded by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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This beautiful Short-eared Owl was a former patient at South Sound Critter Care. Photo by Curt Pliler.

This beautiful Short-eared Owl was a former patient at South Sound Critter Care. Photo by Curt Pliler.


If you’re a nature and wildife lover living in the Seattle area, I have to tell you about a can’t-miss event coming up on April 24th: the 4th annual Wild in Washington Wildlife Benefit Auction! This year, the auction is being held in Renton, Washington, and all proceeds will support the rehabilitation and release of injured and orphaned wildlife at South Sound Critter Care.

South Sound Critter Care is a wildlife rehabilitation center in Kent, Washington, where I’ve been volunteering since July of last year. While volunteering at a wildlife center can be hard work, I’ve learned it’s always rewarding. The best part, really, is knowing we’re helping animals who can’t help themselves, and providing a service for the caring people who bring them to us.

"Fancy" is South Sound Critter Care's education crow. Having been raised by the public, she was turned in to SSCC when she got loose. Fancy now visits school functions and other public events. In the photo above, she's taking in the sights and sounds at SSCC's volunteer appreciation event last January.

"Fancy" is South Sound Critter Care's education crow. Having been raised by the public, she was turned in to SSCC when she got loose. Fancy now visits school functions and other public events. In the photo above, she's taking in the sights and sounds at SSCC's volunteer appreciation event last January.

Wildlife rehabilitation centers are not-for-profits that rely on outside sources to continue caring for the animals that need help. The Wild in Washington auction is a big part of that funding for SSCC, and we really hope you’ll join us. It promises to be a fun afternoon complete with the live auction, silent auction, a delicious catered lunch (covered by the price of your ticket), and an all-around good time. If you’re in the Seattle area, or will be on Sunday, April 24, please come and help support what we’re doing for wildlife.

(On a personal note, I’d love for as many of you to come to the auction as possible because I’d love the chance to meet you and put faces to names! If you do purchase tickets for the auction, please let me know so I can be on the lookout for you.)

We have so many fun things that will be up for auction, ranging from wildlife artwork to themed baskets (Pilates membership and goodies, for example), to a getaway at Lake Cushman, to concert tickets. Yes…concert tickets. We’re talking Billy Joel…Earth, Wind, and Fire…Steve Miller Band…and ADELE. I happen to know the tickets to see Adele are for a couple of really good seats. As in, you just might make eye contact.

For more details, to see what’s up for auction (ahem…those two tickets to Adele’s sold out show…), and to purchase your tickets, click on this link: Wild in Washington Wildlife Benefit Auction.

Please consider this your personal invitation. I’m looking forward to meeting you there!


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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Male Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com. Public domain.

Male Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com

Cassin’s Finch was named for ornithologist John Cassin (1813-1869) by his friend, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian Institute, though it was just one of five birds to bear his name. At one point the curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, Mr. Cassin also colored many illustrations for the multi-volume Pacific Railroad Surveys. One of the most well-versed ornithologists of his time, he led a fascinating life, even suffering — and ultimately losing his life — because of his years of bird study. (Read more about John Cassin at Towhee.net.)

Find out more: Eye of the Explorer: Views of the Northern Pacific Railroad Survey 1853-54

Cassin’s Finch is one of the roseate (tinged with rose) songbirds, and looks similar to both Purple and House Finches. The habitats of the three can overlap, especially in the Cascades (and especially on the Eastern slopes), making identification just a bit trickier.

Read on to learn more about this beautiful finch.

Scientific Name: Carpodacus cassini

Family: Fringillidae

Size and markings: At around 6.5″ long with a wingspan of 10″, Cassin’s Finch resembles the Purple Finch and House Finch but is slightly larger, with a longer beak. While the other two pink-washed finches have smooth crowns, the Cassin’s crown tends to be fluffier, often with a peaked look to the top of his head. The male has a reddish-pink crown, and his shoulders, throat, breast, and rump are tinged with the same, though not as brightly as the crown. Lightly-streaked underparts are light pinkish-white to white. The female, who is brown and heavily streaked, has a light chest with distinctive short brown stripes. She may also sport a white eyebrow. The wings of both are brown and streaked.

Female Cassin's Finch. Attribution: http://thenaturespicsonline.com. Public domain.

Female Cassin's Finch. Photo: http://thenaturespicsonline.com


Food: Cassin’s Finch dines on pine seeds, tree buds, sunflower seeds, insects, and berries and bud from various shrubs and trees.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Tending to live at higher elevations (up to 10,000 feet), Cassin’s Finch can often be seen flocking together with crossbills and Pine Siskins. The female is an eclectic nester who builds her nest using a variety of materials, including animal hair, plant fibers, rope fibers, and grass stems, inside a loose — and often frail — framework of twigs and lichen. Cassin’s Finch will also mimic the songs of other birds.

Number of broods per year: 1-2

Number of eggs per brood: 2-6

Migratory pattern: This songbird lives year-round throughout much of the Western U.S., from the Eastern slopes of the Cascades to the Rockies. It is rare to see Cassin’s Finch to the west of the Cascades. Breeding as far north at Southern British Columbia, it then will winter in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico. Wherever it is, Cassin’s Finch will also “micro-migrate” to lower elevations during harsh winters.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Possibly any, but more likely during the winter months.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram!

Female and male Red-winged Blackbirds. Photos by Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Female and male Red-winged Blackbirds. Photos by Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Like so many others right now (or so it seems), I’m currently battling the flu. I’d wanted to write a new blog post today, but alas…I just can’t. So by necessity, I’m sharing with you a blast from the past about a favorite backyard bird — one that has recently been showing up at my feeders again. I know spring is about to spring when these beautiful birds with their fancy epaullets come to call. Enjoy. – Ed.

I always know when a male Red-winged Blackbird has come for a visit to my yard. As if he were a royal monarch announcing his own arrival, he’ll sit on the top of my shepherd’s staff feeder pole, or in the nearby Japanese maple, and let out a piercing “tseert!” for all to hear. And again, “Tseert!”

Not long after he toots his own horn, another Red-winged Blackbird will show up. Sometimes it’s a female or two, sometimes a male buddy. That’s probably what he was doing in the first place…just letting his friends know where the food is and that they should join him, like, now. It’s just more interesting to think of him as crying out, “I’m here! I’m here! All is well…carry on.”

If any bird fits the self-important, king-of-everything characterization, it’s the Red-winged Blackbird. After all, he even has his own harem. Highly polygamous, this very handsome blackbird will have his own clan of “sister wives”: One male can have anywhere from one to over a dozen females nesting in his territory.

The females are far from monogamous themselves, and have been known to lay clutches of eggs fertilized by different males.

If you see only one Red-winged Blackbird at your feeder, rest assured that others aren’t too far away. These birds are very communal and will roost together all year long, though flocks tend to be larger in winter months.

Here’s more of what you should know about the Red-winged Blackbird:

Species: Agelaius phoeniceus
Family: ICTERIDAE

Size and markings: Though roughly the same size at 7-9 inches long and with a wingspan of 12-15 inches, male and female red-winged blackbirds look completely different. The male is all black with the exception of red and yellow shoulder patches. The female’s plumage is a warm brown and heavily streaked. On both, the bill is sharply pointed.

Food: Red-winged Blackbirds feed on seeds, insects, berries, grain, corn, and small aquatic life, such as insects hiding inside aquatic plants.

To attract RWBB’s, try Woodlink’s Magnum Sunflower Seed Screen Feeder

Habitat/nesting/behavior: Cup-shaped, loosely woven nests are built in damp areas such as marshes and ditches, though some Red-winged Blackbirds choose to nest in grassy fields. Red-winged Blackbirds are polygamous, and several females will nest in one male’s territory.

Number of broods per year: 1-2
Number of eggs per brood: 2-4

Migratory pattern: Some Red-winged Blackbirds remain year-round in the Pacific Northwest, but some do winter in the southern United States and Mexico. Males are the first to return in February to set up their territories, with the females following later.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Any, though most likely from February/March through November.

Many of the above facts about the Red-winged Blackbird were taken from Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

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Male Red Crossbill. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson, naturepicsonline.com

Male Red Crossbill. Photo: Elaine R. Wilson, naturepicsonline.com

As bird lovers, most of us live for the day when a rare (to us) bird flies into our air space, and – instead of just passing through – decides our yard looks good enough for a stopover. This happened for me last year when a Lazuli Bunting stopped in for a bite and lingered for a few hours. Last week, it was a pair of Red Crossbills.

The Red Crossbill, a colorful yet smudgy-looking member of the finch family, has one very interesting feature. And if you’re seeing this bird for the first time, this feature – a curved beak that crosses at the tips – may look like a deformity. But that crazy beak isn’t a deformity at all. Rather, it’s a handy feature that helps it collect the seeds that are the main part of its diet.

Of the rare-to-me birds on my list, the Red Crossbill is the one I’ve been most wanting to see, and for one reason: to get a first-hand look at that crazy, curvy, crossed beak myself. And it finally happened.

As I was gazing at my feeder birds the other morning, I was perplexed by what resembled a too-small, “dirty” Evening Grosbeak. She was eating seeds from a snowman-shaped cylinder feeder and was soon joined by a reddish friend that at first glance appeared to be a male House Finch. Of course, I knew they weren’t either of those and set about to identify them. (I knew what I wanted them to be, but had to make sure). After snapping a couple of photos to get a closer look, I was very excited to confirm that they were the Red Crossbills I’d been waiting for (the yellow one was the female). Oh, happy day!

Unfortunately, the pictures didn’t turn out well – see below – and I wasn’t able to get a great look at their beaks, but it was enough that they had finally showed. And hopefully they’ll be back.

If you, too, would like to see that amazing beak in action, watch as this female Red Crossbill devours an immature pinecone in slow motion:

And here’s a nice close-up of the Red Crossbill’s fabulous beak:

Want to learn more about the Red Crossbill? Read on.

Scientific name: Loxia curvirostra
Family: FRINGILLIDAE

Size and markings: The Red Crossbill is 5.5-7” in length with a wingspan of 11-12”. Its heavy finch bill is crossed at the tip. The male is a dull brick red with brown wings, and the red is lighter on the rump. The female is a yellow/olive-green with brown wings and also has lighter coloring on the rump. Tail is short and brown.

Food: The main diet of the Red Crossbill consists of seeds from pinecones. It also eats other seeds, berries, and insects.

Habitat/nesting/behavior: This bird forms loose colonies with other crossbills in coniferous forests. Its chunky nest, built on a branch, is made up of twigs, grasses, and lichen. The Red Crossbill has been known to breed “off-season” if a plentiful supply of pinecones is found.

Number of broods per year: Varies. At least one, but possibly more if plentiful food is found.

Number of eggs per brood: 3-4

Migratory pattern: The Red Crossbill is a year-round resident throughout much of the Pacific Northwest, but will micro-migrate nomadically in its search for pinecones.

Months usually seen at backyard feeders: Most likely to be seen at lowland feeders during the winter months, though rare.


Learn more about your backyard birds in Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds. Get it for your Kindle (which you can also read on your PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet with this free reading app), Nook, on Smashwords, or in the iTunes bookstore.

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram!

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