Bring dozens of Inland Northwest bird species right to your backyard with just a little planning

JOHNATHAN HILL ILLUSTRATION
Johnathan Hill illustration

Every year in late December or early January, bird enthusiasts around the world participate in the Christmas Bird Count, or CBC, as it's known in birdwatching circles. The event is an attempt to create an up-to-the-minute snapshot of avian populations by logging actual sightings within a short window of time.

In the early days of 2021, the annual Spokane CBC recorded at least 72 species — not counting a peregrine falcon that was spotted just before the official start of the count. That number might seem high, especially at the height of winter, but it's more or less on a par with years past. And it speaks to the variety of birds that can be found throughout the Inland Northwest at any time of year.

The good news is that you don't have to travel very far to find them. Over the years, Alan McCoy, the current president of the Spokane Audubon Society, has logged more than 100 species just in his backyard. He attracts them through simple methods that novice bird enthusiasts can use too.

"If you put out nothing else, put out black oil sunflower seed. You can find it in any store. There are lots of different feeders, but some of the best are the cylinder feeders that are clear plastic. You can hang them somewhere that's readily available. Not only finches but chickadees and nuthatches will come to those and grab a seat."

click to enlarge Apps to Identify Birds by Photo or Song - Smart Bird ID - Audubon Bird Guide - Merlin Bird ID
Apps to Identify Birds by Photo or Song
Smart Bird ID
Audubon Bird Guide
Merlin Bird ID

McCoy also suggests suet cakes, which can be purchased almost anywhere that sells birdseed. In addition to the familiar nuthatches and chickadees, suet cakes will also attract woodpeckers. Thistle seed, also called Nyjer seed, will attract different varieties of finches as well as California quail and pine siskins. For a cross-species treat, you can drill large holes in a log and fill them with peanut butter. Planting seed- or fruit-bearing native trees and shrubs like serviceberries is yet another way to attract and feed birds.

"Birds can usually find food, but water can sometimes be scarce. So the most critical thing is to put out water, especially in the summer and fall," he says. That can take the form of a traditional pedestal birdbath, a hanging shallow bowl or even a small pond with circulating water.

"But, importantly, you want to put that water in a place that doesn't also have hiding places for predators like cats."

That last point is one that McCoy emphasizes repeatedly as key to responsible birdwatching. Since 1970, the total North American bird population has fallen by around 3 billion. Although habitat loss from deforestation and other human activity is a major factor in avian decline, predation from outdoor cats also plays a significant role. In the United States, the National Audubon Society has estimated that domestic and feral cats kill anywhere between 1.3 and 4 billion birds annually — rates that are too great for bird populations to fully recover.

Another threat to guard against is other birds. Non-native species like house sparrows and European starlings are "very aggressive birds" that will force more docile species out of an area or even kill them, McCoy says. Allowing these species to overrun a feeder or a birdhouse actually does more harm than good.

"If somebody's going to put up a birdhouse, they must be willing to monitor the house and clean them out when the birds are done nesting," he says. Along with preventing invasive species from muscling in, the routine monitoring and cleaning help to curb the spread of disease among birds.

One way to exert tighter control over which birds are inhabiting your birdhouses is to build them to suit particular species.

"You need to make sure that the opening meets their requirements," says Lindell Haggin, a Spokane Audubon Society chapter leader of 50 years. "If it's too big, you're going to have some larger species going in there. And so if you do want to protect the native birds, you want to make sure the holes are of the proper size for, say, a chickadee, a nuthatch or a bluebird."

Here, just a quarter of an inch can make all the difference between an opening that keeps a marauding house sparrow safely outside and one that leaves occupants vulnerable. For guidance on proper birdhouse dimensions, Haggin recommends consulting the Spokane Audubon Society's website or the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for patterns and plans. As for that iconic peg that often features just below the birdhouse entrance? It's not necessary and may even be a liability, as it gives invading birds a perch for attack.

These small acts of mindfulness on the part of the aspiring birdwatcher can have big rewards. Haggin has welcomed over 110 different bird species to her backyard near the Little Spokane River. Beyond developing a better appreciation of their sometimes subtle differences in appearance, she says that birds bring a practical benefit. Bluebirds, for instance, eat plenty of nuisance insects.

She's also come to see unique personalities and displays of cleverness in some of her regular visitors.

"The other day I heard this clanging. A chickadee had figured out that if you tap on a seemingly empty feeder, maybe you'll dislodge something. And then if you go to the bottom, you'll find a seed," she says. "You notice these behaviors, and it's just fascinating to see those behaviors and how birds relate to one another. This is a wonderful way of getting to know birds in another way."


Keeping it Clean

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife cautions bird lovers that feeders can spread salmonella, which is usually fatal for birds. During an outbreak, which was reported in several counties as this issue of H&H went to press, you should either temporarily discontinue using feeders or clean them daily. To clean, first rinse the feeder with warm soapy water, then dunk it in a solution of nine parts water and one part bleach. Rinse again, dry and refill. Also, keep the area below the feeder clean.

Wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly after working with bird feeders and baths as there is a possibility that the disease can spread to humans. 

At your feeder, birds with salmonella may appear unusually tame or lethargic, and present with their feathers fluffed out. They should be left alone. If you find a dead bird, try to avoid handling it and report the event to the WDFW at wdfw.wa.gov.

— ANNE McGREGOR

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.