For the Birds Radio Program: Birds of Washington, D.C.

Original Air Date: Jan. 20, 1989

What to look for if you watch the Inauguration.

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(Recording of a Tufted Titmouse)

If you watch the inauguration ceremonies on television today, chances are you’ll spot a bird fluttering past the screen—but it’ll most likely be just a House Sparrow, starling, or pigeon. When I visited Washington in November, I was amazed by the incredible number of these foreign species in our nation’s capital.

Of course, there are a few native American birds in Washington. One, the House Finch, is an introduced species, but it’s introduced from the American west. House Finches used to be seen only in the Southwestern states until the 1800’s, when thousands of them were captured and brought to eastern cities to be sold as cage birds. When the government cracked down on illegal trade of them in 1941, some dealers released their stock into the wild on Long Island in New York. The birds began spreading, and in the past few years have been found breeding as far as Wisconsin. And there’ve been several individuals and one pair seen in Minnesota since 1980. But it’ll be many years before House Finches are as numerous here as they are in Washington, D.C.—last year 1159 were counted on the D.C. Christmas Bird Count. House Finches are found in both urban and suburban areas in eastern cities, and are one of the few species which can successfully compete with House Sparrows for food and nesting sites.

The mall area in Washington, where many of the memorials and the Smithsonian museums are, is a haven for Ring-billed Gulls. I wouldn’t be surprised if all 20,000 of Duluth’s nesting gulls winter in Washington, all mooching at the mall. In the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial there were quite a few Canada Geese, Mallards, and Wood Ducks, along with some domestic ducks. In the shrubbery both in the Mall and on the White House grounds, I found a few Mockingbirds and cardinals. And every time I went past the Triceratops statue in front of the Natural History Museum, I saw a Fish Crow sitting on a telephone wire begging for food. But overall, it was pretty dismal searching for birds in the heart of the capital.

Things improve greatly at the National Zoo. White-throated and Song Sparrows were actually singing in late afternoon, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and cardinals weren’t too hard to find. Washington is too far south to find the Black-capped Chickadee, but its close relative, the Carolina Chickadee, is fairly common. Carolina Chickadees lack the outgoing exuberance of their northern brethren—probably the number of people running around in business suits depresses them.

I saw one of my favorite southern birds, the Tufted Titmouse, at the National Zoo. This relative of the chickadee is jolly and sprite. Back in Madison, Wisconsin, I used to whistle titmice down to me easily, but in Washington they are a bit less trusting.Black and Turkey Vultures come down to the open carnivore cages at the zoo to share the meals, and Black-crowned Night-Herons commonly roost atop the Eagle enclosure.

It’s possible to see an even greater variety of birds in parks on the outskirts of the city. The Smithsonian publishes a book, Finding Birds in the National Capital Area, by Claudia Wilds, giving quite a few hints about where to go to find birds. But I’m not used to bird books warning me to keep my binoculars as inconspicuous as possible, to carry nothing of value, and to stay alert for suspicious behavior. Washington was an interesting place to visit, but the Northland is the place for me.

(Recording of a Tufted Titmouse)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”