Pikes/Pines | The feathered growing pains of spring


A fledgling Brewer’s Blackbird. Credit: Brendan McGarry

When I walk around the city in spring, I’m always distracted. Not by the flashing lights, the gaudy ads, and only slightly by the skin displayed on sunny days. No, for better or worse, I’m distracted by birds going about the act of raising young. With meager attentiveness, you can notice birds in the process of raising young all over Capitol Hill and here and there they hurtle into our lives too.

Most noticeable are fledglings, specifically young free of the nest. Typically they look very different from their parents and indeed, none of our Capitol Hill birds immediately grow adult feathers. Often they develop an intermediate set of feathers, as flightworthy protection from the elements, but also marking them as youngsters. Within a year most will have adult plumage, but some species, like gulls, take several years to become perfectly plumed.


A nestling European Starling. Credit: Brendan McGarry

Sometimes, we find ourselves face to face with nestlings — out of the nest. Prematurely frightened out, discharged from a pruned tree, or survivors of nest predation, they aren’t quite ready for the big bad world. Our first instinct is to scoop the cute things up, keep them warm, and try to feed them. While not a terrible instinct, often it’s not the best course. Sometimes parents are nearby and feeding the young where they’ve landed. Maybe they simply need a lift into a nearby nest they fell from (and no, birds won’t abandon their young because you touched them). Believe me, adult birds are much better equipped to raise their young than you. A hummingbird baby requires a feeding every 15 minutes, do you want to take that on? Before you come to the rescue, do diligence to ensure you aren’t simply kidnapping nestlings. PAWS has a wonderful flowchart for guidance and if you still aren’t sure, call for help (425-412-4040). This time of year they are inundated with rescued baby birds and while they want to help, they have limited resources and want to be sure you don’t make a mistake.

When we share close urban quarters, conflict with birds is inevitable and indignation is an understandable response to species who don’t know our rules. The most common example is that of American crows, who nest all over the city, and are ferocious defenders of their young and nests. I can’t tell you the number of times someone has told me that crows hate them, because they keep getting attacked on their runs or walking down the block. There’s not much to be done for this behavior beyond recognizing a locational trend and avoiding the area temporarily. Crows usually hatch and leave the nest within a month. These highly intelligent birds are bright enough to recognize individual people, but they don’t randomly attack people, no matter how much you might believe it or dislike them (I, for one, believe crows are the coolest birds we have around Capitol Hill, but I’ll save those explanations for later ramblings).

Nesting birds can similarly cause problems. Some nests are minor annoyances of noise or mess, a vent or a small crack in building readily attracts cavity nesters. The worst scenarios involve species that decide to create a cavity in your home. Northern Flickers, a type of woodpecker, are typical culprits. Seattle Audubon has a good overview of ways to deter their attempts.


Steller’s Jay nestlings. Credit: Brendan McGarry

Before you start removing nests, keep in mind that most nests are federally protected (minus introduced Rock Pigeons, European Starlings, and House Sparrows). Besides, as annoying as loud nestlings and their white wash can be, have a little humanity before you start evicting them. All bird nests are temporary, only used a couple times as season in most cases and after they’ve finished steps can be taken to remove opportunities for further nesting.

Mostly, we should be excited to see the lives of birds in the city. In most cases, nesting birds create minor inconveniences in the form of protective parents or messy, short-term tenants. The worst results are slight property damage. We’d do well recognizing that most birds were here before us and that more often than not they need all the help, in the form of rescue, creation of nesting habitat, or tolerance, they can get. Besides, they’re just being good parents; don’t fault them for that.

Previously in Pikes/Pines

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9 thoughts on “Pikes/Pines | The feathered growing pains of spring

  1. Great post! Those who are constantly using their smartphones, or with earplugs, miss out on the fascinating world of birds in our midst.

    • I was pleased to discover there are some smartphone apps that help you identify bird calls.

      I have a deck that is right at tree-top level, and while I can’t see the nests I know they’re there. I’ve always tried to cultivate a friendly relationship with the neighboring crows (who like to sit on my building near my deck) and while they get noisy during nesting season, I’ve never been buzzed — even though they sometimes go after other people on the street from time to time.

      • there are? Which one do you recommend? it’d be nice to finally have something useful in my phone. :-)

      • Yes! Please post which app you use to ID birds. I’m viewing some pretty crappy choices in the Google Play Store.

  2. Ah yes,springtime and those delightful little babies singing cheep cheep chirp from their nests. What a sublime sound. What an uplifting refreshing experience! I’d rather have root canal with no novocaine or gas.
    I’ve been attacked by crows 5 times since moving to this mildewed corner of the American linoleum. The first time, way back in the Hoover administration, I was out jogging and on 3 consecutive days I was bombarded by the same crow on the same block. I called some bird organization on spoke to some lunatic who told me to “stare them down.” Woudja believe? Did ya evuh? I’m no ful. I am a college graduit! I am not going to stare down anything with a 747 wingspan shrieking in my ear and with a beak that’s sharp as a razor. Two words: Tippi Hedrin.
    The other attacks varied in intensity. At the very least-just a fly by howdy do. At worst, a full scale attack with several bird buddies and a wing grazing my neck
    and palpitations lasting until I got home to the Lorazipam stash.
    Crows have memories. They recognize faces. They recognize scents (Fahrenheit by Dior which I wear so I can inhale the delish aroma of my ex boyfriend who I broke up with in 1988 but I’m over it. The crows in my hood look down, see me, and word spreads throughout the crow grapevine. THERE HE IS THE NY’ER WITH THE ZABARS TOTEBAG. ATTACK ATTACK! Ah yes, springtime, fledglings,truly a delight. Nature. Ich. Yech. Feh. And god created this? What a loser. He also created my brother in law and believe you me tateleh, that’s no reason to celebrate. Namaste. Hugs.

  3. There’s a smartphone app for bird call identification? Oh dear. Bring me my salts. Get rid of it. March right down to the library. Go to the card catalogue. Pull out the “B as in bird” draw. First admire the yellowed dog eared edges of the cards. Then inhale its aroma. Then do a little research and find a record of bird calls. Check it out. Bring it home. Listen to it. First remove dust from needle. If it says cheep cheep it’s a sapsucker. If it says coo coo it’s a pigeon. If it says redrum redrum it’s a crow and if you hear “whatever whatever” it’s a bird that’s conversationally cornered. A smartphone app. Well I just don’t know about you young uns today. If these phones were so smart they’d vacuum and dust.

  4. gonna try one from the app store so i can figure out what kind of bird is living in our courtyard that has a loud shrieking call. i don’t think it is a native bird to this area in fact it almost sounds like it might be an escaped pet bird i just can’t put it’s call to a name yet.

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