Archive for the ‘Bird Habitats’ Category

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.

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American Goldfinches. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

American Goldfinches have been hogging the feeders lately, perhaps to fuel up for their journey to...elsewhere (certainly not here). 9-1-2014. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

When I stepped outside to fill the feeders the other morning (the first of September, to be exact), I was pleasantly surprised to feel a slight chill in the air. I love summer, but all the heat and humidity was making me cranky.

Besides the lower temps, there are other things I look forward to with the arrival of fall: the changing of the leaves, drinking hot coffee at Starbucks just to warm myself up, and the visits of migrating birds passing through on the way to their winter homes.

It’s that very idea of birds heading south that causes some people to believe that feeding the birds is just a seasonal thing. The truth is that while many birds do fly off to spend the winter in warmer climates, quite a few remain. Here are some of the birds you’ll see year-round in the Pacific Northwest (though not everyone here in the PNW will see the same birds):

Spotted Towhee
Steller’s Jay
Dark-eyed Junco
Pine Siskin
Black-capped Chickadee
Chestnut-backed Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
American Robin
House Finch
Purple Finch

American Goldfinches also hang out year round, according to every range map I’ve seen. That may be true, but where I live (just south of Seattle), I only see them from spring through early fall. What about you? Do you see them during the winter months? Since they’re more drab in the winter, they may in large part just go unnoticed, but I have a feeling that many of them also vacation in the southern U.S. before returning in the spring. I know for a fact that they are nowhere near my feeders in the winter months…and you can bet I notice and identify every bird I see in my backyard.

Considering that so many of our feathered friends do stick around, what should we be doing this fall to help care for them? I’ve come up with a few ideas.

1. For starters, now is a great time to clean your feeders. Let the birds empty them, then bring them in to give them a good scrub in your sink. (Be sure to dry them completely before refilling with seed.) I prefer feeders that come apart easily. I also have a long tube seed feeder, but since it’s hard to clean, it gets replaced about once a year. Choose hummingbird feeders that are easy to clean, too, since these can grow mildew and bacteria quickly.

2. Continue to feed the hummingbirds. Rufous Hummingbirds and Black-chinned Hummingbirds arrive in spring and leave in late summer, but our Anna’s hummers are year-round residents who depend on nectar for sustenance, especially when the bug population drops.

Read it: Backyard Birding: Using Natural Gardening to Attract Birds by Julie Zickefoose

3. Depending on where you hang your feeders, this is also a good time to rake or sweep away any old seed and seed husks. Not only is it unsightly, but old seed left on the ground can harbor bacteria and also attract slugs and rodents.

4. Hang up bird houses and/or roosting boxes to provide shelter for birds during cold and harsh weather. Also, hold off on any drastic pruning of shrubbery and trees, for the same reason. This also gives birds a place to hide from predators.

5. Most importantly, keep feeding the birds! Once you’ve begun to feed your backyard birds, it really is a commitment. They quickly learn to depend on you for sustenance. Look for sales and stock up on seed if you live in an area where you’re likely to get snowed in.

What do you do to care for backyard birds during the fall and winter months? Leave a comment below or chime in on our Facebook page or on Twitter!

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Learn more about your backyard birds in the newly revised and updated 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 Evening Grosbeak. Photo credit: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Male Evening Grosbeak. Photo credit: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Along with the sun and milder temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest, migrating birds have been making their appearance, too. Whether they’re in the area to stay or just stopping for a rest and a few morsels of food before taking off again, their arrival is a fantastic opportunity for us to do some backyard birding. (By the way, spring is a great time to start a “life list” of birds you’ve seen, if you haven’t done so yet.)

While watching these birds is enjoyable for us, spring can be a dangerous time for them. The following tips will help to ensure a safer experience for your feathered visitors.

1. Keep cats indoors. Domestic cats allowed to roam their yards and neighborhoods can do real damage to the bird population. (The outside world isn’t the safest place for cats, either, which is another good reason to keep them inside.) It’s normal, I think, to assume it’s not a big deal for cats to catch a bird or two. But when we realize just how many cats are actually out there catching “a bird or two,” and the huge negative impact this has on bird numbers, we see how much of a big deal it really is. This article by the Washington Post says outdoor cats (they’re including feral cats in these numbers, too) kill between 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds each year. Just one domestic cat alone can kill up to 34 birds a year (that number is quite a bit higher for feral cats). So, if at all possible, make a difference for the birds in your yard and keep kitty inside where she can spend time chattering at the birds instead of pouncing on them.

2. Learn Good Birdhouse Etiquette. Wait…there’s etiquette for birdhouses? Well, not really, as the word etiquette usually implies a code of conduct regarding proper and polite ways to behave in a social setting, but it sounded better than rules. But rules they are, I guess, and following them might make for a better nesting experience this spring for all concerned.

First of all, don’t place a birdhouse too low. A too-low birdhouse makes it easy for predators like cats and raccoons to reach in and remove eggs and nestlings — and possibly the parents — from the nest. Poles with baffles, like this one and this one from Duncraft, make it difficult for predators to reach the birdhouse.

Don’t hang it in a full-sun location. I made this mistake when I started caring for backyard birds years ago. The back of our house – a spot that got full sun – seemed like a perfect location for a nesting box I’d just purchased, and for a while it was. It just didn’t occur to me that it would overheat on the inside. (That’s called naïveté on steroids.) A family of sparrows raised one brood that spring, and then had a second brood that summer. The second brood didn’t fare as well: It ended up being too hot inside the birdhouse and the nestlings didn’t survive. Needless to say… I felt horrible about it, learned a huge lesson, and didn’t make that mistake again.

Become an expert with the Audubon Birdhouse Book.

Only use birdhouses or nesting boxes that have a side or bottom panel that opens, and clean them out after nesting season is over. Many birds will simply build a new nest on top of any old ones left in the birdhouse. Over time, this raises the level of the nest dangerously, leaving the nestlings susceptible to predators. Also, if the young are too close to the entrance hole, they could fall out before they’re old enough to survive on their own. Birdhouses should also be cleaned out to remove parasites and any wasp nests that may have been started. The best time to do this is in the fall, when it’s obvious to you that the birdhouse is no longer being used. (Do put the birdhouse or nesting box back up after you’ve cleaned it — overwintering birds will use it for shelter during harsh weather.) For more tips about housing birds, check out this article by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: Nesting and Roosting Boxes for Birds.

3. Do not use rat poison. Rat poison, commonly used by homeowners as an easy way to get rid of rodents, is made with anticoagulants (blood thinners) that cause internal hemorrhaging and subsequent death. These dying rats or mice become weak, easy prey for raptors like hawks, eagles, and owls, who then become secondary victims of the poison and die a slow, painful death.

I know it’s hard to admit…sometimes even to yourself…that you might have a rodent problem, so I’ll go first: Last summer, we had an experience with a family of rats that were getting into the crawl space under our house. They’d been attracted originally by the birdseed I’d been putting out, but since I wasn’t about to stop feeding the birds to get rid of the rats, we had to think of a different solution. After locating the place they were entering our home through, my husband placed one trap near that spot and another trap near what may have been their underground nest, using peanut butter as bait. He’d get a couple rats, reset the traps, and repeat. We ended up getting rid of the mama and several of her quickly-growing children that way. I was concerned that the birds would be attracted to the peanut butter and be harmed by the traps, too, but that didn’t happen. Whew.

If you do have a rat problem, you’ll enjoy this article by Animal Planet on 10 Rat Myths. Or, if you’re like me and you hate rats, you won’t enjoy it…but may find it interesting.

4. Keep birdfeeders clean and full. I don’t need to tell you, especially if you live west of the Cascades, that it’s been very wet and rainy lately. Birdfeeders can be magnets for bacteria, and quickly become their very own petri dishes. Buy an easy-to-clean feeder (one that can be completely taken apart) and clean it at least weekly during wet weather. If you see sick birds, take the feeders down entirely for at least a week or two to keep the disease from spreading to other birds.

Also, don’t place your feeders too close to dense shrubbery where predators can easily hide. Hanging them from a shepherd’s staff, like the one shown below, at least five to six feet away from the nearest shrubs will give your songbirds a better chance of escaping a hungry raptor or cat. (Pictures can be deceiving, by the way: The grape arbor in the photo, below, is really about 20 feet away from the feeding station.)

Evening Grosbeaks. Photo credit: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Evening Grosbeaks. Photo credit: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Nectar feeders for hummingbirds should also be cleaned at least weekly, and the nectar changed every few days, especially in warm weather when it can quickly turn rancid. Some people change the nectar every day, and it’s really just a matter of personal preference. Just keep an eye on it – if the nectar starts to look cloudy, it needs to be changed and the feeder cleaned.

5. Keep Window Strikes to a Minimum. We’ve all heard that dreaded thunk when a bird flies directly into one of our window panes. At my house, it’s usually juncos, because we have so many, but one year it was a Yellow Warbler that hit our living room’s bay window (he lived, as far as we know). What’s particularly deceiving about window strikes is that the birds, even if knocked silly for a while, will eventually fly away…provided they weren’t killed instantly when they hit. It’s been discovered that birds who hit windows suffer concussions and possible bleeding inside their skulls from the window collisions, which can lead to their deaths later.

One way to keep window strikes to a minimum is to place decals on the windows most often hit by birds (for me, it’s my dining room and living room windows). The decals are more visible from the outside than from the inside, so your view won’t be impeded as you watch the birds while drinking your morning coffee.

That’s it for now. Do you have any tips for making your backyard safer for birds? Leave a comment below, on our Facebook page or on Twitter.


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!

The above post contains a few affiliate links. Patronage of these links helps to keep Pacific Northwest Birds up and running and full of fun information about our beautiful Northwest birds. Thank you!

Pine Siskin. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Pine Siskin. Photo: Sally Dinius/Pacific Northwest Birds

Are you as shocked as I am at how quickly autumn arrived this year? Whether it was the recent drenching rains or the almost-overnight appearance of pumpkins outside of seemingly every grocery store in town, the point has been made: Summer is O-V-E-R, over.

To many people, bird feeding is a seasonal activity — or hobby, if you will — that ends with the arrival of cooler weather. This is partly due, I’m sure, to the absence of some bird species that were plentiful in the spring and summer months, and possibly because of the false notion that all birds go south for the winter. Some do move on in the fall, that’s true, but many birds remain. Year-round species like Black-capped Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Anna’s Hummingbirds rely on us to feed them every month of the year. Once they find a feeder, they depend on it to be filled, no matter the weather or the season.

There are also the migrating birds who will fly through our area from northern habitats to their winter homes in the south, making stops at feeders along the way to fuel up. And don’t forget what I call micro-migrators, like Pine Siskins and Mountain Chickadees. Some of these micro-migrators move nomadically around an area depending on where the food is (like the Pine Siskin), while some travel between higher and lower elevations during the winter, often before and after bad storms (like the Mountain Chickadee). They’re all counting on us to keep those feeders filled.

Needless to say, feeding birds is a real commitment. The benefits, however, aren’t only for the birds. It’s a way of life that is also highly rewarding for backyard birders like you and me.

Still…it is fall, and it isn’t always easy to know what a birder should be doing at this time of year. Here are a few things to keep us backyard birders busy for the next several months:

1. Buy birdseed and feeders at a big discount or on clearance. This is a great time to stock up on seed (keep in a cool, dry place), and to buy new feeders at a big discount. Hang the feeders now if you need to, or set them aside until spring when more birds will be around. Check out this link to see the great daily deals right now at Duncraft. (While you’re there, click on their “closeouts” link to see even more deals.) And if you’re near an ACE Hardware, they’ve just sent out a coupon booklet containing great deals on seed and feeders. You’ll want to pay them a visit, for sure.

2. Clean feeders weekly, and especially after long periods of rain. Moist, temperate (not too warm, not too cold) conditions are perfect for letting bacteria and disease breed like crazy.

3. Clean out your birdhouses — or hang a new one or two — for birds who might need a place to sleep or to simply wait out a bad storm.

4. Plant dormant shrubs now that can later provide shelter or a place to perch for the birds that visit your yard.

5. Take time to brush up on your birding know-how and bird identification skills. (My book, Birds of the Pacific Northwest: How to Identify 25 of the Most Popular Backyard Birds is a fun and easy-to-use resource.) Learn how to identify the birds you’ll see this fall — both the usuals and the birds passing through on their migration routes — and be able to recognize the birds that return in the spring.

I hope this gives you some good ideas for bird-related things you can do this fall. What will you be doing? Comment below!


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!

It’s always interesting getting to see other parts of the country or world. I was given the chance to do just that recently when I took a trip to Southern California with my sister. We’re both from SoCal originally, but I hadn’t been there personally since I was a teenager, so I appreciated the chance to visit again, take in the scenery, and even do some people watching. (By the time we got to the Long Beach airport on Monday for our return flight, I looked like something the cat dragged in. I’m pretty sure I was an interesting sight for people watchers, too.)

Being in another area geographically is also a boon to birders, as it’s a fantastic chance to see birds we normally wouldn’t get to. Personally speaking, I was able to add at least a couple new-to-me bird species to my life list. That’s not as many as I would have liked to add, obviously, but I’ll take it.

Our flight from Seattle to Long Beach, CA, left last Thursday afternoon, and as I told my sister today in a text, I am the Queen of Awkward Moments. I own and fully embrace that title, and proved it a couple of times (or more) on our trip. Our jet, coming and going from Seattle to Long Beach, was a Bombardier CRJ200. It’s not a big plane at all, carrying only about 75 passengers, with four seats per row and an aisle in between them. If you’re tall, and by that I mean over 5 feet, watch out. I’m 5’2″, and the first thing I did as I was trying to get to my window seat was to walk straight into the overhead compartment. That’s right: I walked into it. I didn’t duck, as everyone else who was paying attention knew to do, and am still sporting a painful little bruise on my forehead as a souvenir.

We had quite a bit planned (including many hours of driving) for the few days we’d be in California, so a day of birding was out of the question. But…a birder is a birder is a birder…wherever the birder happens to be. I knew I’d be keeping my eyes open for birds everywhere we went.

Case in point: As our little jet was landing in Long Beach, one of the first scenes to greet me was two fairly large birds sitting on a sign next to the runway. These big, black birds with pink heads — most likely Turkey Vultures — were just sitting there as if they were…uh…waiting for us. Talk about a creepy welcome. Not exactly what you want to see when your plane is trying to land.

The only other chance I had to see birds on this trip was the next day in Santa Monica. Before plopping down on the beach (which was very crowded but still a fun experience), we strolled up and down the pier — a well-known landmark you’ve most likely seen either on TV or in movies, if not in person. (If it’s in the water, can it still be called a landmark? Hmm.)

Looking back toward the rides from the end of the Santa Monica Pier. Photo: Pacific Northwest Birds

Looking back toward the rides from the end of the Santa Monica pier. Photo: Pacific Northwest Birds

The bird I was most hoping to see at the Pier was the Brown Pelican, and I was not disappointed. We saw several in the water, in fact, and a flock of 30-40 flying away as we walked down to the beach. All of the pelicans we saw in the water were juveniles.

Juvenile Brown Pelican, Santa Monica, CA. Photo: J. Cavendish, 2013

Juvenile Brown Pelican, Santa Monica, CA. Photo: J. Cavendish, 2013


Two juvenile Brown Pelicans in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Pacific Northwest Birds, 2013

Two juvenile Brown Pelicans in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Pacific Northwest Birds, 2013

We also saw this Double-crested Cormorant:

Double-crested Cormorant in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: J. Cavendish, 2013

Double-crested Cormorant in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: J. Cavendish, 2013

and the token gulls, of course. Here are two Glaucous-winged Gulls, adult and juvenile:

Left: Glaucous-winged Gull, adult. Right: Glaucous-winged Gull, juvenile. Santa Monica, CA. Photos: J. Cavendish, 2013

Left: Glaucous-winged Gull, adult. Right: Glaucous-winged Gull, juvenile. Santa Monica, CA. Photo: J. Cavendish, 2013

Big thanks to my sister for taking some of these pictures!

Which birds have you seen this summer? Tell us about them in the comments below or on Facebook.


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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