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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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What Seattle-area birders can listen for in fall: fewer songs, more warnings


SEATTLE — Though we may be hearing the sounds of some of the same birds we’ve been listening to much of the year in the Seattle area, the calls and cries they’re making now are often of a different type.

Gone are the more complicated, lyrical trills that we typically think of as “songs.” Those are used to attract mates or defend nests and are no longer needed as we head into our rainy Pacific Northwest winter, according to Whitney Neufeld-Kaiser, a Western Washington birder who teaches classes on how to identify birds by song.

“Birds generally aren’t trying to do those things at this time of year, so we hear a lot less singing,” she said.

Instead, what we often hear during fall are contact or companion calls (which are used to keep track of each other), territory defense calls, and alarms that warn others of a nearby predator, she said.

Just like some people, birds don’t care much for heavy rain. Most seek shelter instead of song in a deluge, said Neufeld-Kaiser. But sprinkles and misty, light rain seem to not affect them much.

“There’s anecdotes from birders about perceiving an uptick in singing and calling when the sun comes out after a rainstorm,” she said.

For folks who want to increase the number of birds calling and singing in our region, Neufeld-Kaiser has a few tips:

  • Take a break from fall cleanup in yards, courtyards, flower beds and community spaces. Wait until late winter to deadhead flowers — birds eat the seeds. Rake the leaves from sidewalks and paths, but leave them on the grass or rake them into flower beds or under trees. This creates more food and shelter for insects, which in turn is food for birds.
  • Do what you can to stop birds from crashing into your windows. Up to a billion birds die each year in the U.S. after they collide with glass, but each of us can take steps to help. There are a wide variety of solutions, many quite low-cost.
  • Keep your cat inside. Domestic cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year.
  • If you own property with trees or have some influence over the fate of trees, talk with an arborist to see if a dead or dying tree can be left as a snag instead of completely cut down. Snags provide homes for woodpeckers, and woodpecker holes in turn provide homes for smaller birds such as Bewick’s wrens and chestnut-backed chickadees.

Here are nine birds to listen for this time of year in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, any time we get a glimpse of clear weather.

Pacific wrens (Troglodytes pacificus)

These tiny brown natives with a spring canticle that’s been described as a “pinnacle of song complexity” hold their tail upright and shake with sound when they sing.

Neufeld-Kaiser said they are now returning to the lowlands for the winter.

“In our larger parks with mature stands of trees and plenty of undergrowth, you may hear them calling a sharp, short ‘chat’ note that is often doubled ‘chat-chat’ and sounds rather like someone making a smooching kissing sound,” she said.

Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna)

Named after Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli, these colorful birds are native to the western coastal regions of North America and have become year-round residents in the Puget Sound region.

Some of them are still singing, said Neufeld-Kaiser, but more of them are “chasing each other around, making a dry chittering “jika jika jika jika jika” call.

Bewick’s wrens (Thryomanes bewickii)

This gray-brown wren with a long white eyebrow is still doing a bit of singing, though you may only hear two or three songs, possibly truncated or immature in form. You may also hear their “brzzz brzzz” alarm calls or a rapid series of short “jik” calls.

Song sparrows (Melospiza melodiaare)

Adaptable and variable, song sparrows can be found in abundance in overgrown fields, wooded edges and backyards, where they are common visitors at bird feeders.

Listen for their “wheezy, husky ‘jimp’ calls” at this time of year.

Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and cackling geese (Branta hutchinsii)

Most people are familiar with the loud, resonant “honk” of the Canada goose, but if you hear one that’s higher in pitch than usual, coming from way high in the sky, you might be hearing cackling geese migrating south.

Other atypical honks could come from migrating species such as greater white-fronted geese (Anser albifrons) and snow geese (Anser caerulescens).

These birds breed north of us and their breeding grounds are increasingly threatened by climate change, said Neufeld-Kaiser. “National Audubon’s website has detailed maps that give us a sense of how threatened these birds are.”

Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus)

These members of the woodpecker family announce themselves with their high, piercing call, variously written as “keew” or “kleer” or “peah.”

Spotted towhees (Pipilo maculatus)

This large, striking sparrow is more visible in the spring when males climb onto shrubs to sing their buzzy songs, but they’re still making noise now with a call that sounds like a mewing cat with “a questioning qweeee? or zhreeee? that goes up in pitch,” said Neufeld-Kaiser.

Steller’s jays (Cyanocitta stelleri)

These noisy, and sometimes obnoxious, members of the crow family continue in the fall with a variety of “unmusical calls, including a longer raspy ‘shaaaar’ and a series of rapid, popping ‘chek chek chek chek chek chek’ calls.”

Black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus)

This common bird at Seattle-area bird feeders can be heard almost year-round saying its name, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.”

Their calls are complex and language-like, and are used to communicate information about other flocks as well as predator alarms, according to The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds. The more dee notes in the chickadee-dee-dee call, the higher the threat level.