Be a bird’s buddy Be a bird’s buddy Be a bird’s buddy

Seattle Audubon’s Joshua Morris, ’08, shares some ways to aid our feathered friends on their fall journey.

By Catherine Arnold | Illustration by Marisol Ortega | November 21, 2020

With many of us stuck inside, working from home and taking classes from home, it’s quieter during the COVID-19 quarantine. Well, except for all that tweeting at the bird feeder, right? Up above, and in the garden, more than 4 billion birds are moving through North America during fall migration.

And more of us are watching those birds. The number of people participating in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s biannual Global Big Day of birdwatching, on May 9, rose to 50,000, a 45 percent increase over 2019. Photo and audio recordings provided to the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library wildlife media archive, and downloads of the Lab’s free bird ID app, Merlin, were all up by 50-100%. Fall’s Big Day, which occurred on Oct. 17, drew high numbers as well.

“Birds need our attention,” says Joshua Morris, ’08, urban conservation manager at Seattle Audubon. “Their fates are tied to our own.” In Washington state alone, 189 species are threatened by climate change and with losing 50% of their suitable habitat by 2080. Collisions with buildings are the largest source of avian collision deaths in North America, according to a 2019 study.

We talked with Morris about how to make life a little easier for our winged friends.

How can we make our neighborhoods bird-friendly?

We can grow native plants—something as small as a container garden on your windowsill will help. They attract insects, an important food source for birds.

And we can build or buy official nest boxes for certain species—like flickers, in the woodpecker family; barn owls, swallows, and saw-whet owls. We should avoid many nonofficial birdhouses, which have the wrong dimensions and may include a perch outside that a predator can use to locate birds.

Do you have other tips for yards and gardens?

Be a messy gardener. Leave little piles of plant debris that allow multiple species to find nesting or other shelter opportunities. For instance, spotted towhees and other towhees nest in leaf piles and find insects to eat there, as well.

What threats to birds exist in our neighborhoods?

Cats are probably the biggest conservation concern—in the United States, a 2013 study estimated that free-ranging domestic cats kill 1.2 billion-4 billion birds a year. The most important thing is to keep the cat inside. It’s safer indoors for your cat, too.

We can also reduce the number of birds hitting windows and dying. Since windows look like clear air to them, we need to make the glass visible as a barrier. There are multiple ways to do that—with stickers, ropes hanging in front of glass, bits of tape, or other means. The key rule is not to leave spaces larger than 2 inches by 2 inches unmarked. We’ll help all birds that way—but especially hummingbirds, which seem especially vulnerable to glass collisions.

Are there other dangers to birds?

We can skip or reduce our use of rat poisons. If a rat eats poison, it will hemorrhage and be found outside by owls, hawks, other birds of prey. If a raptor eats the rat, the raptor will likely also hemorrhage and die. So many raptors are testing positive for these poisons. In California, science has found that larger mammals (such as bobcats) eat the rats and the poison enters the food web. Here in Washington, there’s scientific evidence that rat poison is moving up the food chain to hawks and other levels.

Instead of using poison, we can make sure rats and mice don’t find food sources near our homes. We can keep dog or cat food indoors; and use spring-loaded mouse or rat traps, or fertility-control chemicals that reduce rats’ reproduction. That way, we only affect rodents with our controls.

How can we increase birds migrating north to our neighborhoods?

If we drink coffee, we can drink shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee. This will help many birds arrive here after migrating from far to the south; habitat loss from urbanization and agricultural conversion has been a primary driver in bird population declines. As forests in tropical countries are converted to farming land, this takes valuable habitat from birds and puts them at risk of extinction. Most coffee farms destroy habitat to grow coffee. Shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee, however, maintains canopy and habitat for birds and other wildlife. Western Tanagers and Swainson’s Thrush, for example, migrate from Mexico and Central America. One of the challenges in avian conservation is that what happens in very distant places can have big impacts on breeding birds locally. For anyone concerned about birds, and we all should be—bird-safe coffee is an important way to protect birds and have your coffee too. Seattle Audubon offers bird-friendly coffee.

How did you get into this line of work?

I studied biochemistry and neurobiology at UW, but found I was kind of a sloppy bench chemist and didn’t enjoy the repetitive action of using a micropipette. After serving in the Peace Corps as a chemistry teacher in Cameroon and being rejected from a French translation program, I eventually found my way to my current work. Ultimately, I enjoy the environmental world so much that it’s fortunate I didn’t do the language program. I grew up in Seattle and being outside has always been part of my family life, from hunting to camping trips. As a socially anxious person, I feel like birding and being outside was and is a good way to cope with that and learn.

Why is protecting nature especially important right now?

If the world is unhealthy for birds, it’s also unhealthy for humans. Also, access to nature for all groups isn’t what it should be around the country. Redlining happened here and has affected neighborhoods, park development, and the distribution and movement of animals through our cities. There is a connection between conservation and justice, elegantly stated by others already. Racism has shaped the lay of our cities, the amount of vegetation in some areas and everything including where our trees and animals are. If we are really to achieve conservation, anti-racism is a distinct part of that. Seattle Audubon is moving toward an understanding that issues like affordable housing, public transportation, and ending police violence are conservation issues.

To anyone who didn’t grow up with nature, I’d say I was intimidated when I first entered the birding world. But you don’t have to know how to identify a bird to appreciate it. Experiencing and loving are the important things in conservation—if people can take a moment and appreciate the nature all around us, that’s a terrific start.