Birds of the Pacific Northwest describes and illustrates more than 400 bird species commonly encountered in the diverse landscapes of the region. In this excerpt, John Shewey and Tim Blount tell us more about the iconic state birds of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)
Oregon’s official state bird abounds through out much of the interior Northwest, but, perhaps surprisingly, is increasingly scarce west of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington, where it once thrived, largely owing to loss of native bunchgrass habitat. Once replete with large tracts of the open prairie that forms the Western Meadowlark’s prime habitat, the valleys west of the Cascades are now occupied by human settlements and large farms, with no year-round grassland cover, and substantial acreage of heavy blackberry-riddled fallow—the kinds of places this colorful bird avoids.
9.5 inches. Soft mottled brown and tan above; bright yellow below with black necklace (reduced and paler in fall and winter); brown crown stripes and pale supercilium; long, straight bill; short tail with white outer feathers. JUVENILE is similar, but paler overall and lacks black necklace.
Song is one to 3 plaintive whistles followed by a rapid, descending, whistled warbling; calls include single-note whistles, a rapid high rattle, an urgent chup; flight calls include scratchy jumbled whistles.
Although generally a ground-dwelling species, the Western Meadowlark often sings or surveys its surroundings from shrubs, rocks, fence posts, and other such objects. Habitat Grasslands, pastures, grain field margins, arid shrub steppe, vegetated dunes.
Common summer resident of interior; uncommon year-round resident of interior, but birds generally retreat from Rocky Mountains slopes, as well as much of eastern Oregon, southwest Idaho, and northeast Washington; uncommon year-round resident west of Cascades.
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
Washington State’s official state bird and the most seasonally dimorphic of Northwest finches, the male American Goldfinch is also the most striking in his summer breeding plumage, a conspicuous bright yellow highlighted with black and white. Come autumn, however, he molts into a much more subdued dress only to molt again in early spring back to the showy bright yellow. The female likewise changes with the seasons, but her plumage variation—from pale yellow in summer to more pale tan in winter—is not as dramatic as that of the male.
5 inches. MALE BREEDING (April–August) Bright lemon yellow with sharply contrasting black wings and forehead, and blackish tail; white undertail coverts; yellowish orange bill. MALE BREEDING (September–March) Similar overall pattern to breeding plumage, but much duller, usually warm pale tan with pale yellow throat and yellow shoulders; blotchy yellow patches in autumn; all black wings by late summer molting to distinct white or buffy wingbars on black wings in fall; increasingly yellow by late winter, with patchy black forehead. FEMALE Pale yellowish overall with dusky yellowish mantle and face (breeding) or soft grayish tan overall (nonbreeding), with dark wings and prominent wingbars (thin wingbars in female Lesser Goldfinch); white undertail coverts; pale yellowish bill (breeding) or pale gray bill (nonbreeding).
Song is a rapid, ringing, musical series of twee and sweet notes, often slowing and slurring at the end; calls include a whiny teweeee; a very high pureet-peet-peet or similar, often with rapid high chatter notes; fl ight call is a musical, repeated cher-chee-chee-chee.
Habitually feeds on thistle, Fuller’s teasel, and other stemmed seed heads, often clinging acrobatically to stems.
Brushy or weedy fields, fencerows and hedgerows, brushy road margins, woodland edges.
Common year-round resident.
Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides)
Idaho’s official state bird, the beautiful Mountain Bluebird certainly lives up to its name, frequenting the mountainous regions of the Northwest, but it is also the common bluebird of the high desert sagebrush steppe and juniper woodlands from southeast Idaho to central Oregon. Bluebirds are secondary cavity nesters, and they have benefited from widespread installment of bluebird-specific nest boxes throughout the Northwest, on both public and private lands. For natural cavities, they use woodpecker holes, natural cavities, and even crevices in buildings.
7.25 inches. Small, thin, black bill; wing primary flight feathers project to lower third of tail (shorter in Western Bluebird). MALE Bright azure-blue above, pale sky-blue below; white undertail coverts and belly. FEMALE Pale grayish tan overall, lightest on breast, with baby-blue wash over rump, tail, and flight feathers; white undertail coverts; often a slight rusty tan wash over breast and flanks; white eye ring. JUVENILE Similar to female, but with light streaking on the breast.
Airy, musical, whistled chew notes in a drawn-out series varying in cadence; also a rapid chip-chip-chip.
Frequently perches on roadside fences and power lines in open areas. Males select cavities to show off to the females they are suiting and in display, sing from atop or near the cavity, often flying back and forth between the singing perch and the nearby perch occupied by a female.
Open forests, including burns and clear-cuts; savannah-type habitats; sage-dominated plains and uplands; juniper woodlands; to at least 12,000 feet in breeding season; high-elevation populations move to lower elevations in winter.
Fairly common summer resident and migrant throughout Idaho, rare winter resident in southern Idaho; fairly common year-round resident in central and southeast Oregon; fairly common summer resident and migrant in north-central Oregon and eastern Washington; fairly common summer resident of south-central and southeast British Columbia.
Lifelong birding enthusiast John Shewey is a veteran freelance writer, author, editor, and professional outdoor photographer with credits in dozens of magazines, ranging from Birdwatching to Portland Monthly.
Noted expert Tim Blount is a director with the Oregon Birding Association and executive director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
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