Protecting Fauna and Habitat

Proposal to Expand Hunting Access at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

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By Kim Dolgin – In 1974, land and water acreage was set aside to create the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Renamed the Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, the Refuge straddles portions of the Nisqually River Delta and Nisqually Reach (an offshore area that includes areas of deeper water). The Delta is primarily composed of estuary, but also houses fresh water marshes, grassland, and both coniferous and deciduous forest. It forms one of the largest estuaries remaining on Puget Sound, is home to thousands of waterfowl and is a significant stopover point for migrating shorebirds. The Reach is prime habitat for juvenile salmon and forage fish and provides feeding grounds for grebes, loons, gulls, and alcids. Because of this, the Refuge has been recognized as one of Washington State’s Important Birding Areas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed opening an additional 380 acres of the BFJNNWR to hunting. (Currently 192 acres of Refuge land may be hunted in season; in addition, 625 acres of water adjacent to the Refuge may be hunted as well.) The proposed additional hunting area is north of and next to the area in which hunting is currently allowed and consists of water and tidelands that would be accessible only by boat. (See map below.)  Details of the proposal can be found on the Refuge’s website; alternatively, you can access the plan by clicking here:

We wished to alert you to this proposed change because many of our members regularly visit the Refuge.  Public comments will be accepted only until July 8, 2019, and hence time is of the essence if you wish to make any opinion you might have considered before a final decision is made. Comments can be submitted in writing to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 100 Brown Farm Road, Olympia, WA, 98516, or by email to If you choose to write, please put “Hunt Plan Comment” on either your envelope or in the subject line of your email.

LBA Woods Update

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Spring! Birds are chattering away and native understory plants are budding, blooming, and leafing out. The Friends of LBA Woods has co-hosted with Olympia Parks Stewardship office a few more work parties to work on removing scotsbroom and holly. We’ve hosted one Forest-Bathing walk in January and have another scheduled for April 13 at 10 a.m. (The leader, Kathy Jacobsen, also offered such a walk at the BHAS dinner-auction). A major community trail run has been scheduled for August 10. Here is the flyer on the event, being coordinated by a local trail-running group.

In June, the Parks Dept. will be starting community outreach for plans for LBA Woods’ trails, signage, etc. Since the Spooner’s property (strawberry farm) on Yelm Highway was purchased by the city for soccer fields, the LBA Woods is no longer being considered as a site for those. The funding for the Log Cabin Extension Rd has been taken out of the budget for now; the road is now merely a right-of-way, but it still lurks as a possibility down the road and will require a community campaign to remove it from the regional (county) transportation plan permanently.

Meanwhile…the Osoberry says Hello and Happy Spring!

Purple Martin Project

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(by Bob Wadsworth) On a densely foggy morning, January 13, Hank Henry and I joined the Olympia Harbor Patrol on a trip from Swantown Marina to Boston Harbor where we met Craig Merkel to do the annual cleaning of the purple martin nest boxes. (Harbor Patrol Captain Darlene flanked by crew members Janet Notarianni and Dave Palazzi)

On the way we soon discovered that our binoculars were useless as the fog was so thick we couldn’t see beyond to bow of the boat.  The Harbor Patrol got a good chance to instrument-navigate with radar and GPS.

Bob and Janet enjoying the view.

We had chosen this particular date because of the high tide (10:15 AM) during daylight hours which meant that we could reach the nest boxes attached to pilings at the marina from the deck of the boat without a ladder.

Working on the boxes.

We found that all six boxes were used by the Martins.  They had a thick mat of twigs and except for one box, all appeared to have birds fledged with no broken eggshells or dead nestlings. 

However, we did find one nest with five unhatched eggs and a dead martin which we could not identify as either juvenile or female adult.

This is the third season of monitoring purple martin nest boxes at Boston Harbor Marina.  Three years ago, we installed 22 boxes to supplement a dozen boxes already there.  As it turned out, those boxes were not used by the birds.  After the second year of not being used, we replaced them with six boxes that were built to meet a design more appropriate for purple martins.  This year’s results indicate these boxes are to the birds’ liking.

Is E-Shopping Harmful to the Environment?

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by Kim Dolgin – Everyone knows how e-commerce has taken off in recent years, not just in the United States, but globally. More than half of U.S. purchases are now made electronically, accounting for 9% of all the dollars that consumers spend. (Big-ticket items remain more likely to be bought at a bricks-and-mortar store.) These amounts are increasing rapidly, and since younger folk are more likely to make purchases on their phones or computers, the upward trend seems likely to continue or accelerate.

The question is: is this good or bad from a carbon-emission perspective? The answer is quite complex and depends upon the assumptions you make in doing your calculations. For example, how far do you assume a buyer travels to get to the retail store? What kind of car are they driving, or are they biking? Have they bundled their trips so as to make several purchases? Researchers from MIT’s Center for Logistics and Transportation have studied this question and have calculated the carbon costs for different types of shoppers. Traditional shoppers – those who do all their examining and purchasing in stores – emit on average of 3.1 kg. of carbon dioxide going to and from stores on each visit, including those made to exchange goods (a surprisingly high percentage of trips). In addition, the store they visit expends carbon by needing to have lights on and from packaging their goods in appealing ways (such as by having plastic windows so the merchandise can be seen). Cybernauts, who account for about 12% of U.S. shoppers, do all their buying online and incur carbon costs because their products must be delivered, because of the IT infrastructure they support, and because of excess packaging when items are mailed. Still, per purchase on average they produce only about half the carbon emissions as Traditional Shoppers. Modern Shoppers are the most common type, a hybrid of the other two: moderns go to stores to examine merchandise and then ultimately buy online. As you can imagine, this is the worst of both worlds, for these shoppers incur all the costs associated with travel, delivery, and excess packaging.

Unfortunately, the environmental cost of e-shopping is getting worse, largely because so many more shoppers opt for guaranteed two-day delivery. Mega-retailers such as Amazon, Walmart, and Costco entice shoppers by letting them choose rapid two-day delivery, often at no cost, and even same-day delivery. Choosing these speedy options negates the carbon advantage of pure e-shopping, because companies must make additional, less optimally-routed trips with partially empty vehicles to ensure speed, so more trucks are driving more miles. These swift-turnaround times also increase the likelihood that products will travel by air as well as by land.

Fortunately, it is becoming more common for e-retailers to let patrons select slower delivery service. Some even offer an incentive for you to do so. For example, the last time I waived the free two-day delivery that I receive for being an Amazon prime member, I was offered free slower delivery, and a discount on a future digital purchase was thrown in. The company is also trying out a new feature, Amazon Day, which will let you select a single day each week when all your week’s purchases are bundled and delivered together. This option also reduces packaging and lowers the risk of theft if you opt for delivery on a day you will be home. (And, of course, the company will save money).

With more and more types of items available online, and more and more companies offering expedited shipping, it becomes ever more important to consider the environmental effects of e-commerce.  Next time you buy with a click, ask yourself if you really need that new lawn ornament by the day after tomorrow. If you can wait a little longer, you will be doing a small bit to help reduce carbon pollution.

The Environmental Impact of Pet Ownership, Part Two

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Last month I wrote about the environmental impact of pet waste (or, what goes out one end …); now I’ll try to convince you to reconsider what you are putting in your furry companion’s other end— your pet’s food. The way many people feed their cats and dogs magnifies, rather than minimizes, their contribution to climate change.

And pets do contribute to global warming. Americans collectively own about 96 million cats and 90 million dogs. (More people own dogs than own cats, but cat owners are more likely to have several cats.) These numbers have been steadily increasing, and so has their environmental impact. All these animals need to eat, and according to a widely cited study by Greg Okin, pets eat a quarter of all the meat consumed in this country. If American dogs and cats formed their own nation they would rank fifth in global meat consumption.

Most of us are aware that meat consumption contributes to climate change because livestock-rearing is a significant cause of greenhouse gases: the microbes that break down cellulose in ungulates’ digestive systems produce methane as a byproduct, which cows, sheep, et al. release when they burp, fart or poop. Methane is much more powerful than CO2 in trapping heat: a given volume of methane traps 100 times more heat than the same volume of carbon dioxide. Although most people assume that vehicles—cars, planes, trains, ships—are a larger problem than livestock, this isn’t true; although less methane is produced by the animals than CO2 is produced by the vehicles, the difference in the two gases’ heat-retaining properties means that the world’s 1.5 billion cattle have a larger overall impact on atmospheric heat retention than all forms of transportation combined.

Meat production also contributes to climate change by encouraging deforestation for land to grow grass and grains. Furthermore, it would be less wasteful to feed humans the grains that go to feed the livestock. These animals also consume huge quantities of water.

I’m certainly not suggesting we give up our pets, but sensible changes in the way we feed them could reduce their carbon footprint. For many years, pet owners fed their dogs and cats pet food made from scraps culled after the cuts eaten by humans were removed. The pets were perfectly happy with this arrangement; in fact, wild felines and wolves prefer organs such as lungs and liver over muscle. If our pets eat mostly scraps, we don’t need as many cattle to feed them and us as we do if they compete with people and eat choice cuts, such as steak. And there is no evidence that human-grade food keeps pets healthier. Unfortunately, advertisers have convinced many pet owners that Fluffy or Fido deserves and benefits from sirloin, and an ever-greater percentage of pet food is made of meat that humans could have consumed. Again, this increases the need for larger cattle herds.

You can also reduce pet-food waste by feeding your four-legged friend the right amount of food. More than half of American dogs and cats are overweight or obese, making them more vulnerable to kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory disorders, and decreasing their lifespan. And obviously feeding more than they will eat, even if they stay svelte and leave the food in the bowl, just means more organic matter gets tossed in the trash.

Yet another way to reduce your pet’s environmental impact is to feed them lower down on the food chain. Chicken and fish consumption entails less environmental impact than beef production. (And even my very finicky cat doesn’t prefer beef overall to either chicken or fish; I bet yours won’t, either.) Also, while cats are more truly carnivorous than dogs, and must be fed a meatier diet, both species do fine with some vegetable matter in their food. Again, it is advertising, not science, that drives the trend of having your pet be “grain free” or eat “100% meat.”

Pets can even help you reduce some of your own food waste. Have you considered feeding them leftovers from your own meat-based meals, rather than throwing these leavings away? Most of us eat our own leftovers, but sometimes there isn’t quite enough to save, and you can chop up these bits and mix them into your pet’s food.

These suggestions will save you money and help reduce your family’s carbon footprint. They won’t hurt your pet. And these are the kinds of small changes that can add up to make a difference. (by Kim Adelson, Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Problem of Ocean Acidification

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As I indicated in the last issue, several of this year’s climate-change articles will address the impacts of global warming on the Puget Sound region. (Other articles will focus on practical tips to reduce your personal carbon footprint or to make lifestyle changes to positively impact birds and other wildlife.) Here I want to focus on the problem of ocean acidification. Although many of climate change’s effects are caused by increased carbon dioxide, CO2, in the atmosphere, ocean acidification results from more CO2 dissolved in seawater. While we are sheltered from many of the worst effects of atmospheric CO2, we who live in the coastal Northwest will be especially hard-hit by changes in the acidity of the ocean.

What is ocean acidification? Some portion of the CO2 in the atmosphere—25-30%—is absorbed by the ocean, lakes, etc. where it combines with water, H2O, to form carbonic acid: CO2 + H2O → H2CO3. Carbonic acidic is an acid by definition because it dissociates (comes apart) and releases hydrogen ions, H+: H2CO3 → HCO3– + H+. We use a 14-point scale called pH (from “power of Hydrogen”) to measure how acidic or basic a liquid is. A liquid with a pH of 7 is neutral, with equal concentrations of hydrogen and hydroxyl (OH–) ions. A pH of less than 7 is acidic and more than seven is basic; each number means 10 times as many hydrogen ions per liter as the next larger number; thus human blood, with a pH of 7.4, has 10 times as many hydrogen ions per liter as a pH of 8.4. Before the Industrial Revolution, the pH at the surface of the ocean was about 8.25 and had been so for many millions of years. Over the past 150 years, about 500 billion tons of CO2 has entered the oceans, and the average ocean surface pH has shifted to about 8.1; estimates are that it will drop to between 7.7 and 8.05 by the end of the century if we do not act to reduce atmospheric carbon levels. So although maritime waters remain basic, they are less so than they used to be. And, because our northwestern coastal waters experience atypically large amounts of upwelling—water from lower levels rising to the surface—the effect is magnified because deep sea water is already more acidic than surface water, due to decomposition of sinking organic matter.

What does this have to do with birds? Unfortunately, it ultimately harms them. The increased acidity disrupts the ability of many forms of sea life directly or indirectly important to birds (mussels, oysters, clams, some forms of plankton) to form shells. Marine organisms’ shells are made of calcium carbonate, CaCO3; however, as the pH falls and more hydrogen ions are present, the carbonate preferentially bonds with hydrogen ions to form carbonic acid, so less calcium carbonate is formed. The consequences of this altered chemistry can already be seen in the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs. Similarly, it is predicted that by the end of the century mussels and oysters will be able to grow only 75% and 90% as much shell, respectively, as they do today, making them more vulnerable to predation and requiring them to expend energy to constantly replenish their shells. Acidic conditions also greatly decrease the survival rates of shellfish larvae. Especially well-documented is the harm being done locally to the shells of pteropods, or sea butterflies. These small, free-swimming snails are major food sources for herring, mackerel, squid, and shrimp, which are in turn eaten by salmon, tuna, and walleye, and, of course, seabirds. Disruption low in the food chain works its way up to organisms on the top.

Many who are reluctant to act to reduce climate change rely on an economic argument: “It’s too expensive to reduce carbon emissions—it’s bad for business.” Fighting fire with fire, one could reply that increased ocean acidification has enormous economic consequences. In 2012, Washington determined that shellfish farming contributed $270 million to the state’s economy and provided more than 3,000 jobs. In addition, $1.7 billion dollars is generated annually by the commercial fishing industry in this state, which employs 42,000 Washingtonians. These jobs and that revenue stream will be imperiled if the ocean’s food chain became sufficiently disrupted. And to that can be added the $27 million contributed to the economies of coastal communities by recreational shellfish harvesting. In 2006 we began to experience massive oyster and scallop die-offs in the Northwest; this is reality, not a prediction. Although the situation has improved due to efforts to enhance local water pH and cleanliness, it is clear that the future of shellfish farming (and salmon and other fish harvests) depends upon carbon emission control. Reducing carbon emissions makes sense for the health of our environment, the wildlife we love, and for our wallets. (by Kim Adelson, photo – Wikimedia Commons)

Ongoing Conservation Projects at Black Hills Audubon

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Preserving and enhancing wildlife habitats, especially habitats for birds, has long been a cardinal pillar of the Audubon mission at national, state, and chapter levels. Your Black Hills Audubon chapter continues to be very active in these efforts, ranging from protecting wildlife habitats to advocacy for climate-change solutions. Here are some of the actions that BHAS has taken through its Conservation Committee.

Along with National and State Audubon, we strongly support a carbon tax or fee to address climate change—a threat to our environment that is already making severe storms, flooding, droughts, wildfires, and sea-level rise more likely. A study by National Audubon scientists has determined that climate change is the greatest danger to avian wildlife, identifying 314 North American bird species that are expected to lose more than half of their habitat by 2080. On the state level, 189 Washington State species are similarly at risk, about half of the species found in the state. From the Audubon perspective, two major aspects of addressing climate disruption are (1) implementing measures to reduce the release of greenhouse gases that cause global warming and (2) preserving or managing habitat so more species of birds and other wildlife can adapt to an ever-changing environment. Using a grant from National Audubon, BHAS launched the “For the Birds” campaign in 2015, to help participants adopt more energy-saving life styles and keep track of their actions. BHAS and Audubon Washington actively supported the Carbon Tax Initiative I-732, as well as the proposals from the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy and the Governor that were under consideration during the 2017 legislative session. We continue to seek incentives to shift to renewable energy by advocating for fees on the use of carbon-based fuels that reflect their true cost to the environment.

To protect rare prairie habitat, BHAS manages the Maytown Conservation Fund, which permits monitoring the water level and status of species of concern on the West Rocky Prairie tract in southern Thurston County, currently owned by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). WDFW researchers, in their final report on Oregon Spotted Frogs funded by the Maytown Conservation Fund, recommend reforesting the uplands and supporting beavers in the lowlands to preserve these threatened frogs. In a letter to the Port of Tacoma, BHAS has urged them to accept WDFW’s offer to purchase an adjacent 745-acre tract owned by the Port, and we also urged the Port of Olympia to write a similar letter to the Port of Tacoma, which they have done.

The Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project, planned by the renewable-energy company RES-America, proposes 51 wind turbines on a site along the Thurston-Lewis County border. Because wind energy contributes to reducing fossil-fuel carbon emissions—thus reducing the threat of global warming to wildlife, including birds—we are willing to support wind energy projects as long as sufficient mitigation is provided for the protection of birds and other wildlife. The turbines will have high-tech sensors that can detect Bald and Golden Eagles and stop blade rotating when these very large birds are near. Smaller birds, however, would not be identified and risk suffering mortality from blade strikes. The site is on two prominent ridges near the Skookumchuck Reservoir and in immediate proximity to occupied Marbled Murrelet sites; as the project is expected to result in the loss of 2-3 Marbled Murrelets per year, we are seeking appropriate mitigation.

Continuing a competitive scholarship program for bird-banding training, offered by BHAS for the last three years, we awarded $400 scholarships this year to two of the eleven applicants: Michael Szetela and Erin Tudor. The training is arranged by the Center for Natural Lands Management (CNLM). Michael was in his fourth year at Evergreen, has done field studies in Argentina and avian travels in Peru. Erin has a B.S. in biology with focus on ecology, evolution, and conservation, was a field intern for Bird Populations, and is in AmeriCorps with CNLM.

Along with a statewide Marbled Murrelet coalition, BHAS advocated for the Conservation Alternative developed by that group, testifying at hearings of the Washington Board of Natural Resources. Many components of this alternative have been given serious consideration by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and have helped strengthen the murrelet protections of the existing alternatives under consideration by the DNR.

To help protect the Black River watershed in the vicinity of the Black River National Wildlife Refuge, we are working with a hydrogeologist and an attorney to ensure that environmental effects of mining are sufficiently taken into account before permits are issued. See Sue Danver’s article on the Black River on page 3 for more in-depth discussion of this work.

BHAS advocated for the purchase by the City of Olympia of the Trillium and Bentridge parcels of the LBA woods, which are now officially parkland. Bird walks along with work parties to remove invasive plant species such as Scot’s Broom and Himalayan berries have been arranged.

Black Hills participates in stakeholder meetings concerning the Thurston County Habitat Conservation Plan, the Thurston County Mineral Lands Comprehensive Plan updates, the Olympia Critical Areas Ordinance, and restoring Sequalichew Creek near Dupont. Our chapter testified in support of the State Wildlife Action Plan.

Winter surveys of waterfowl were conducted under BHAS supervision in the vicinity of the proposed cell tower near Lake Lawrence in southern Thurston County, as hearings continue about the advisability of locating the tower in this area.

Additional discussions of BHAS conservation projects are available on the Conservation page of the BHAS website (by Sam Merrill, wind turbine photo – Martin Pearman )

The Effects of Climate Change

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Although Black Hills Audubon members are nearly unanimous in believing that global warming is real, and are deeply concerned about it, not all our friends and neighbors agree. Data gathered by researchers at Yale University indicated that in 2016 only 73%, 68%, and 62% of Thurston, Mason, and Lewis County residents, respectively, accepted the truth of climate change; somewhat more than half the residents were worried about it. The PEW Foundation reported similar statistics last year, concluding that fewer than 2/3 of Americans are worried about global warming and that only 57% perceive it as a serious threat. Too many individuals persist in believing that climate change isn’t important and won’t directly affect them.

With the hope that some locally-relevant information can be used as talking points with the climate change
skeptics in your life, let me reflect on the many ways global warming might personally affect us in the South Sound. Since not all regions of the globe will be equally or even similarly affected, it seems prudent to begin by describing how the Puget Sound area’s climate is expected to change in the next 50-60 years. Although numerous climate models have been developed by different organizations and they anticipate varying amounts of additional atmospheric carbon – the driver of global warming – there is widespread, even unanimous, agreement as to how several key aspects of our area’s climate will transform.

The bullet points below are largely adapted from the University of Washington’s Climate Impact Group 2015 Report.

  • First, the Puget Sound region is expected to become significantly warmer. By the middle of this century,
    we will likely experience average annual temperatures 4.2-5.5°F warmer than those in 1970-1999. By 2080, the increase is projected to be 5.5-9.1° F. All seasons, especially summer, are expected to become warmer.
  • Second, we will experience more extremely hot days, though we won’t see as many heat waves as most other parts of the U.S. We will also have significantly fewer extremely cold days.
  • Third, although total yearly precipitation is expected to remain at current levels, all models predict that we will encounter more frequent and more severe summer droughts as well as more frequent heavy winter and spring downpours.
  • Fourth, our weather will continue to regularly fluctuate over years and decades. This is because this region is greatly influenced by atmospheric conditions over the Pacific Ocean, such as El Niño and La Niña, whose cyclical variations profoundly affect our weather. Exceedingly strong “super” El Niños are expected to become more frequent, exacerbating summer droughts and heat waves.

These changes are not only anticipated but have already begun. Washington’s annual temperature has already risen 1.3°F since 1895, and 31 of the last 37 years saw temperatures above the 20th-century average. We have also already started to experience more frequent heavy rainstorms: as of 2009, the Pacific Northwest at large experienced 16% more extremely heavy precipitation events than in the previous 50 years. These changes matter and have real consequences. Climate disruption will impact our forests, prairies, wetlands, coastline, and oceans. It will affect our ability to generate electricity and will change the plants we can grow. It will pose hardships to birds and other wildlife. However, since nothing hits closer to home than health, consider some of the effects that climate change will have on our physical well-being.

The hotter, dryer summers will increase surface-level ozone concentrations and, because of more frequent air inversions (which are heat driven), more particulates in the air as well. Our air quality will degrade, directly affecting those with asthma or lung disease. (The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that by 2020 medical costs from ozone pollution alone will increase nationally by $5.5 billion.) People with pollen allergies will also notice a change for the worse: since plants produce more pollen when it is warm, pollen levels are projected to increase—in fact, to double by 2060 compared to 1900 levels. And the pollen season will be longer, extending the misery. The number of extremely hot days will surge as well; hospitalizations and heat related mortality both increase greatly during severe heat waves, and children, the elderly, diabetics, those with heart and kidney diseases, and people who work outdoors are especially at risk.

With higher temperatures and less summer rainfall, wildfires will become more frequent, destroying more habitat, killing more wildlife, and contributing to air pollution as well. Once again, this is particularly difficult on those with allergies or asthma. Finally, as water levels drop in the hot, dry summers, bacterial and chemical contaminants in water supplies become more concentrated and are more likely to cause harm. A reduction in the number of extremely cold winter days is not associated with increased hospitalization or mortality, but with higher winter temperatures, cold weather flooding becomes more likely as snowfall shifts to rain. Although (fortunately) few persons drown in Washington floods, the high water levels pose other health risks. Drinking and recreational waters are more likely to become contaminated during floods (and hence so do those who drink, wade or swim in them). In addition, the resultant dampness encourages mold growth in water-logged residences. Respiratory symptoms can be expected to rise in vulnerable populations, then, in the winter as well as the summer.

And we haven’t even considered the increasing spread of insect-born diseases, such as West Nile virus….

I know this information is bleak, but I hope it encourages you to act. Talk to friends and neighbors about climate change. Decrease your own carbon footprint. Vote for candidates who make this issue a priority. Provide water and shelter for wildlife. Although we can take some comfort that we Puget-Sound residents are sheltered from many of the worst health effects of unchecked global warming, we will not be completely immune from them. (by Kim Adelson)

Water in birds’ lives

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As most of you know by now, six major avenues to making your yard (or other space) more bird friendly are to provide food, water, shelter, plus protection from toxins, from predators, and from window strikes. Water is perhaps the most important and beneficial of these needs, and one of the least costly, but one often overlooked here in the northwest; we always seem to have an abundance of water, so many bird lovers believe we don’t need to set out water for our local birds. That’s an unfortunate misconception, for our birds do need reliable water sources, especially during the summer and early fall. In addition, having a water source is probably the single best way to increase the variety of species frequenting your space, including species that feeders generally don’t attract—birds that don’t like seeds or are primarily insectivorous.

Birds, like most other terrestrial animals, need to drink to maintain adequate fluid levels in their bodies. Hatchlings, especially, need a lot of water, and frequently don’t get enough from their food, so parents must carry water to them, making numerous trips daily from water sources to the nest. To increase the water content of food, some birds, such as crows and ravens, commonly soak or “wash” food before feeding it to their young or eating it themselves. (Another reason that water attracts them.)

While everyone understands the need to consume water, we mammals may never have thought about the differences between avian and mammalian drinking. Since birds don’t sweat, they generally need to drink less water than mammals. But they do lose water when breathing, especially when panting to lose heat, and metabolic processes also use up water supplies. The mechanics of ingesting water also differ: with their soft, mobile lips and cheeks, mammals can suck up water and swallow it, but except for pigeons (who can suck up water), birds use one of two techniques. Most fill their beaks with water and then tilt their heads up so the water runs passively down their throats; those that frequently fly over water, such as swallows, scoop it up on the wing during a low pass.

Birds also need water for bathing; they bathe year-round, and during the summer may do so several times a day. Bathing seems to make preening more effective. Preening refers to the movements birds make when cleaning their feathers to remove dirt and parasites, distribute oils, and align the feathers and their barbs. Preening behaviors are common, and most birds preen several times a day. Most birds have a special gland, the preening or uropygial gland, that produces an oily, waxy substance that they spread as they preen; a few birds such as pigeons, owls, and raptors lack this gland and instead have special feathers that crumble into a powder that serves many of the functions of preening oil. Such preening powder doesn’t convey the same waterproofing benefits as oil, so birds that produce it are less likely to bathe in water than other birds. Research by Brilot and colleagues has shown that preening is more effective when preceded by bathing: birds who bathe before they preen are more agile when flying through an obstacle course than those who don’t bathe, and birds seem to be aware of this clumsiness: non-bathing birds are more reluctant to approach food in the presence of predator noises than cleaner birds, presumably because at some level they have less faith in their ability to escape danger.

Water bathing also helps birds keep cool. When they bathe, they lift their feathers so the water contacts their skin, and adding ice cubes to a bath makes the water a better cooling agent. Birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches will fluff their feathers in the rain to expose their skin to the drizzle. In dry seasons, you can provide “rain” by setting up a mister, which may be attached to a water bath or be free-floating.

Bird baths aren’t all created equal. The best are shallow and have a ramp, or contain stones or pebbles so that birds can choose the depth at which to stand. Wet plastic, ceramic or metal can be slippery, so scuffing the surface or putting sand on it helps the birds have sure footing. Water baths must be cleaned and sanitized weekly with a 1:10 solution of bleach and water. If predators are a problem in your yard, make sure the baths are raised on a pedestal and are placed where there is little concealment for cats and other hunters.

Bathing is important enough to birds that some even take dust baths, some because they lack standing water puddles or preening oil, but many others— such as California quail, pheasants, thrushes, larks and wrens—prefer dust baths even when water is available. In fact, wrens and House Sparrows will follow up a water bath by immediately taking a dust bath. To attract birds and watch dust-bathing, provide a patch of bare, clean, very dry, fine-grained soil, preferably in a sunny spot, surrounded by brick or stones to help keep the loose soil in place. And as with water baths, raise the dust-bath off the ground and don’t place it too near shrubs that might conceal a predator.

Let me know how well your new bird baths work and what new species you attract! I can be reached at

Maytown Conservation Fund

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Oregon Spotted Frog – USFWS

BHAS is the Fund Manager (Capitol Land Trust is the Fund Administrator) for the Maytown Conservation Fund to monitor water quality and quantity and flora and fauna of interest (including Oregon Spotted Frog) on West Rocky Prairie, an 810-acre parcel in south Thurston County, adjacent to a gravel mining area. Using this Fund, which was provided in a settlement agreement, BHAS is working with WDFW, Northwest Land & Water, Center for Natural Lands Management, and Capitol Land Trust, on monitoring and restoration efforts. WDFW is currently seeking to acquire adjacent lands now owned by the Port of Tacoma.