Male Dark-eyed Junco | Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Male Dark-eyed Junco | Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

It’s “the lull” – that period of time when the activity around many Northwest feeders noticeably quiets down. A handful of the usuals are still around, like finches, chickadees, Steller’s Jays, but they’re a skeleton crew for the most part — keeping things running until everyone else comes back.

(Happily, I have a family of House Finches — parents and babies — who’ve been noisily emptying my feeder lately. If it weren’t for them, I might be taking this lull personally!)

“Everyone else” will be back shortly, counting on us to provide seed and suet through the winter. We’ll begin seeing more Dark-eyed Juncos joining the Spotted Towhees foraging below the feeders. A new batch of drab little birds — the molted American and Lesser Goldfinches, who really aren’t new but look to be — will hit seed feeders and thistle socks again, possibly with their Pine Siskin buddies in tow.

And the migratory birds we saw this spring before they headed further north will put in appearances on their way to warmer locales, giving us a brief chance to see some of our spring favorites.

If you feed hummingbirds, it may be quieter for you because the Rufous, Calliope, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds have already gone South. (Calliope and Black-chinned hummers typically breed east of the Cascade Mountains. Rufous Hummingbirds, while more common in the Puget Sound area, are seen on both sides.) Don’t take down your feeders, however — if you live west of the Cascades, Anna’s Hummingbirds are more than happy to enjoy that nectar year-round.

Here are some things you can do to keep your backyard birds (and yourself) happy throughout the upcoming fall and winter.

1. Clean your seed feeders. Actually, this is a good thing to do after each rain storm, when mold can grow quickly inside birdfeeders. Feeding birds from dirty feeders can promote sickness among our avian friends. If you notice a lot of mold growth in your feeder and cleaning it doesn’t help, consider replacing it. I like to replace my seed feeder a couple of times a year, anyway, and tube seed feeders can be pretty inexpensive. I’ve noticed the birds at my feeders prefer these to the fancier feeders; more of them are able to fit on it at once and have an easier time getting to the seeds than other feeders I’ve tried. Platform feeders also work well, but are best when used in combination with a weather dome. Considering our climate, it’s a good idea to use weather domes, anyway, to help inhibit mold growth and curb the spread of disease.

To learn more about the diseases birds can catch and what you can do to help stop these illnesses from spreading, read this fact sheet from the USGS: Coping with Diseases at Bird Feeders.

2. Clean your nectar feeders. Anna’s Hummingbirds are permanent residents here in the Pacific Northwest and rely on us to keep their nectar feeders filled regardless of the season or temperature. At least once a week, even in winter, take the feeder apart and thoroughly clean it using a special brush or toothbrush kept just for the task. I found some skinny toothbrushes at the dollar store that work very well for cleaning the inside of the bottle, and will also use cotton swabs to clean the ports. You’ll want to use bleach if the feeder has a film of mildew on the inside, but if you clean your hummer feeder often, Dawn dish soap and very hot water works just fine with only a periodic cleaning with bleach. Whatever you use to clean your nectar feeder, rinsing the feeder very well is a must.

By the way, please do not use commercial nectar for hummingbirds, whether it contains dye or is “dye-free.” You can make your own using one part granulated sugar to four parts boiled water. Cool, pour into your feeder, and keep the rest in the fridge. My hummers will drink nothing else.

3. Pull some weeds, do a little pruning. If your feeders are away from your deck or patio, take the time to make sure the grass around the feeding station is mowed, weeds are pulled, and bushes are trimmed back. This will allow for ground-feeding birds like Spotted Towhees, Dark-eyed Juncos, finches, sparrows, and jays to reach the seed that’s fallen to the ground. Pruning shrubbery away from the feeding area will give neighborhood cats less room to hide for stalking and hunting these birds.



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4. Empty out any birdhouses. Now that nesting season is over and done with for another year, it’s time to empty out and clean any birdhouses (also known as nest boxes) you may have. Do the birds a favor, however, and put them right back up, as they will use them in the fall and winter months as shelter from the cold and from storms. If you didn’t hang any birdhouses this year, why not put up a couple?

5. Become a citizen scientist. Now is the time to join Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch. This is a fun program I’ve taken part in a few times now, and it feels good to be a part of something that helps bird research. It’s not too difficult: Watch the birds at your feeders for a certain amount of time each day, tally how many you see of each species, then go online and share that data with Cornell. As an added bonus, you may see birds at your feeder that you hadn’t noticed before. Sign up here: Project FeederWatch.

6. Stock up on birdseed and suet. If you live in an area that typically gets heavy snow, you’ll want to stock up not only on food for yourself, your family, and your pets, but for the birds, too. Once birds know where a food source is, they’ll frequent it regularly, and will be especially counting on it when natural food is hard to find. If you’re on the west side, like me, you should stock up, too. Our winters have been mild for a few years, but the reappearance of La Niña could possibly change that and bring us some real winter weather over the next several 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.

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Photo: Jon Sullivan, Commons.wikimedia.org

Photo: Jon Sullivan, Commons.wikimedia.org

As a family, we’ve spent most Independence Days here at home, barbecuing in the afternoon or evening and setting off fireworks after dark. Because we’re homebodies, we don’t usually see the aftermath of the fireworks except for the bits of burned cardboard left in our yard.

But there was that one time when our kids were younger…the one time we spent it at the home of friends instead of friends coming to our place…that opened my eyes regarding fireworks and their effect on our environment. Driving home that night, there was smoke everywhere. From one side of our town to the other, nothing but toxic smoke just hanging in the air.

While my eyes did begin to open that night, I must admit I didn’t immediately change my ways. I was still mostly “asleep” back then when it came to issues like protecting the world around us and the creatures who can’t speak for themselves. But it was a start, a gradual awakening that’s been continuing over the years. While my family will still be setting off some fireworks this year, it won’t be as big a show as it’s been in the past, and I’ll be putting my foot down on certain types (floating lanterns, for one).

Another thing I never considered in my earlier years, I’m so sorry to say, was the effect of the day’s loud noises on birds and other animals. But these days I do worry about wildlife on the 4th of July, one reason being that this is still “baby season.” Birds and other animals are still having young, and there are also many fledgling birds and young squirrels, raccoons, foxes, and cottontails (the list goes on) born in the spring for whom this scary day will be a first. I have to wonder how many young are separated from their parents before their time, orphaned because the loud booms cause them or their parents to scatter in fear.


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I’d like to offer some tips for making the 4th more wildlife-friendly, but let’s first talk about how it can harm them.

1. The loud booms startle birds and other animals who have already gone to sleep for the night. If you have pets, you probably do what I do and make sure they’re in a safe place inside your home where the noises won’t scare them too much. (You do keep your pets inside on the 4th, don’t you? More dogs run away and are lost on the 4th of July than any other day of the year.) I even put on the radio for my pets to mask the noise of the fireworks from around my neighborhood. It’s not possible, obviously, to protect wildlife from the noise or the smoke…or even a fire should an accident happen.

2. The extreme amount of litter left over from fireworks not only looks terrible, but it can also be mistaken for food. This especially concerns me regarding fireworks displays on lakes and ocean waterfronts. I go outside with a garbage bag in the early morning on July 5 to clean up our yard, but how do you clean up a body of water? You can’t. (Well, you could try, but you won’t come close to getting it all.) The litter either floats or sinks, and the smaller pieces can be easily mistaken for food by birds like ducks or cormorants or by the fish below.

3. Sky lanterns. I really don’t think I need to say more. Does anyone actually think these things are safe? I remember one year when I reluctantly let one of my kids let one go: I almost had a heart attack when it came close to landing in the neighbor’s tree. Thankfully, it rose higher, but almost settled onto other trees before being carried up, up, and away. (I watched it until the fire went out.) Not only are these lanterns extreme fire hazards, the resulting litter can also harm wildlife, pets, and farm animals. Please read this very important article from Balloons Blow: Sky Lanterns (Flaming Litter). A type of firework that’s let loose and out of sight into the sky with no knowledge of where it will end up is one of the worst, and is a very irresponsible way to celebrate anything. And as I just mentioned, I have been one of those irresponsible people.

Sky lanterns seem innocent but are extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow.

Sky lanterns seem innocent but are extremely dangerous and unpredictable. Photo courtesy of Balloons Blow.

Finally, here are some safer and more wildlife-friendly ways to celebrate the 4th:

1. Go to a public display instead of shooting off fireworks at home. Here in the Seattle area, many fireworks displays are done over water (mainly over Lake Washington and Lake Union), but if more people would attend these than set off their own (and many already do), I guess that’s at least something. Here are listings for 4th of July celebrations around the Pacific Northwest:

    Bellingham area (This article even lists clean-up events on July 5. Way to go, Bellingham!)

2. Stay home and keep a hose or two ready. And a fire extinguisher. Whether you’re setting off fireworks or your neighbors are, being ready to put out a wayward trajectory on your roof or a fire in your shrubbery or grass is just smart.

3. Don’t make homemade sparkler bombs. They’re powerful and unpredictable. You could also get in big trouble if you’re caught. This one really goes along with number 4:

4. Don’t set off M80s, cherry bombs, and the like. You may get lucky and not get hurt, or you may lose a hand. Or worse. (And please don’t let your kids hold roman candles while they’re going off. Do you really want your child holding the one that malfunctions and blows up in the tube?) Besides the possibility of harm or death coming to the humans who use bombs, or mortars stuffed in tubes, innocent bystanders – human and wildlife alike – are often harmed, as well.

5. Watch fireworks on TV. Not as much fun, I know, but it is safer and your pets will appreciate the company.

6. Pray for rain. Western Washington has gotten pretty waterlogged over the last several weeks, and for that I am grateful. If you’re in an area that hasn’t gotten much rain and is dryer than we are, pay particular attention to number 2, above.

Have a safe and fun 4th of July, however you choose to celebrate. Remember, please consider the effects your celebration will have on wildlife who live near you and trust your yard to be a safe place.

What ideas can you share for a safe-for-all Independence Day?


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 Instagram!

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.

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







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.

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

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!

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