WDFW LogoCrossing Paths With Washington’s Wildlife News Notes are about wildlife you may encounter where you live or recreate,  including our Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program to provide habitat year-round on your own property.  
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Crossing Paths Newsletter
Writer/Editor: Madonna Luers

Contributing Wildlife Biologists:
• Russell Link
• Patricia Thompson
• Christopher Anderson
• Howard Ferguson
• Michelle Tirhi

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Note: If you're interested in monthly information about Washington's wildlife and WDFW's Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary Program, you can "e-subscribe" to our "Crossing Paths with Washington’s Wildlife" news notes at http://wdfw.wa.gov/lists/ . As an e-mail subscriber to "Crossing Paths," you'll receive these news updates automatically in your e-mail inbox, without linking to a download. As always, you can easily unsubscribe by following the instructions on our WDFW Mailing Lists website. We hope you find these news notes timely and useful. If you have any questions, please contact Madonna Luers at Madonna.Luers@dfw.wa.gov

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September 2018

How you can help wildlife survive drought and wildfires

Setting sun in the red skies colored by the effects of smoke from wildfires.
Silhouette of hawk against backdrop of sunset colored red by the effects of smoke from wildfires.
This summe's higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal rainfall has resulted in drought conditions, and now wildfires, throughout much of Washington. Photos by Doug Kuehn

This summer’s higher than normal temperatures and lower than normal rainfall has resulted in drought conditions, and now wildfires, throughout much of Washington.

Fish, of course, have been affected by low river and stream flows and high water temperatures, and steps have been taken to help them survive, including fish passage obstacle removals and restrictions on fishing.

But what about the wildlife in your backyard and other places you enjoy seeing them? How can we help birds, small and large mammals, and reptiles and amphibians survive these drastic conditions?

Widespread and severe drought will ultimately reduce productivity of many wildlife species – it’s Mother Nature’s way of adapting.  Our native wildlife have evolved with dry spells and fires as part of western ecosystems, so populations over millennia have always waxed and waned.

So in the long run and big picture, you probably can’t help populations as a whole.

But we all care about individual animals we see and there are ways to ease their struggle for survival.

The most immediate and obvious relief for wild animals in drought conditions is of course water. Provide sources of open water for drinking and bathing (birds bathe to maintain clean feathers and thermoregulatory systems, which include cooling.) Learn more about creating bird baths and ponds at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/birdbaths/index.html .

Wildlife stressed by drought conditions can also be helped by removing the additional stress of harassment or predation by domestic animals. Keep cats and dogs confined.

Keep whatever landscape vegetation you have irrigated, to provide shade, cool cover, and plant succulence. To conserve water during drought conditions, forego watering bluegrass lawns and just water plants that provide wildlife cover.

If you already have a yard or garden full of native, drought-tolerant perennial plants, especially those that provide food in some way for wildlife, you’re already helping.

If not, there’s no time like fall to add these kinds of plants to your landscape to help wildlife in future severe conditions -- especially considering climate change and the idea that these conditions could become our “new normal”.

Native cedars, firs, junipers, pines, hawthorns, maples, sumacs, and oaks, are trees that don’t need a lot of watering and continue to provide seeds or berries or other sources of food for many animals when other food sources dry up.

Native, drought-tolerant shrubs that do the same include bitterbrush, buffaloberry,  chokecherry, currants, hazelnut, mock-orange, ninebark, oceanspray, Oregon grape, potentilla, rabbitbrush, sagebrush salal, serviceberry, snowberry, and wild rose.

Native flowers that won’t take as much water and provide food, including nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies, include aster, balsamroot, blanketflower, California poppy, campanula, daisy fleabane, delphinium, fireweed, lupine, milkweed, penstemon,  scarlet gilia, and yarrow.
You can learn more about these kinds of plants in our “Landscaping for Wildlife” book by our available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/book/ .

If you live or recreate in an area near wildfires burning this summer, you could see wild animals moving out of their traditional habitat and into unfamiliar ground where they’re seeking food and cover.

Although some animals die in wildfires, most move out temporarily, sometimes to the frustration of orchardists, irrigated crop farmers, and gardeners. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) works with landowners in those situations to address wildlife damage problems, but it’s usually a relatively short-term issue. Fall rains and winter snows often restore vegetation to burned areas quickly and animals move back to familiar terrain.

During that short-term displacement of some animals, you can make more habitat available by doing LESS in your yard and garden.  Rather than your traditional tidying up as the fall season approaches, consider these easy steps to help wildlife:

  • Leave some “dead heads” on your flowering plants to provide seeds for some birds and other animals
  • If you must rake leaves off grass lawns, just pile them under some shrubs, bushes or other nooks and crannies to provide homes for insects that birds love to eat
  • Keep that dead or dying tree right where it is (unless, of course, it’s truly a hazard to you), so wildlife can feast on the insects in the rotting wood or make winter roosts or dens in its cavities
  • Give yourself and your mower a rest for at least a portion of your lawn to leave a patch of taller grass for wildlife foraging and hiding

August 2018

A close-up of a bumblebee on flower.
Pikas small size (6-ounce, 6-8 inches) make them “homebodies” – rarely traveling more than a couple hundred meters a day. So they are stuck in remnants of habitat at the mercy of fires, drought, and disease.  Pikas don’t hibernate in winter, but live on their cache of haypiles. They stay warm under a dense furry coat and a metabolism that maintains a body temperature of 104 degrees. This is perfect during nine months of winter, but not so much on a hot July day. To avoid overheating, they take refuge under rocks.
Photo courtesy of Science Daily/©Moosehenderson/Fotolia

Can low-elevation pikas survive our warming climate?
By Jamie Bails, WDFW Habitat Biologist

On a hot July day last year I stood on a ridge overlooking the Sultan River in Snohomish County, catching my breath after a steep climb up the forested canyon.

Silence surrounded me until I heard two soft “eeeps,” each from a different direction, repeating back and forth like bouncing ping pong balls.

Pikas, I wondered? I’d heard and seen these tiny rabbit family members at other times, but always at much higher elevations than this 1,300-foot ridge above the river.

Where were they? Nothing moved in the grey talus slope below me. Were they hidden under the angular boulders, shaded during the hottest time of the day, munching on the last of summer dandelion greens, moss or lichen? 

I never spotted them that day, but later asked a colleague if it was possible for American pikas (Ochotona princeps) to be found at such a relatively low elevation.

Maybe, he said, but since he’d only documented them in one other Washington location at such a low elevation, he wanted to check it out. Using an audio recording of pikas to elicit a response, he confirmed that pikas were indeed at that location.

In Washington’s North Cascades, pikas are found in alpine or subalpine areas above 4,000 feet. In some parts of the species’ North American range they’re rarely found below 8,000 feet.

I asked Roger Christophersen, a wildlife biologist with the North Cascades National Park Service Complex (which includes the federal land where I was hiking), about these low-elevation pikas. He knew of no previous documentation of the species on that 1,300-foot ridge where I heard them. He also noted that except for a 2009-2013 study in the park, little is known about pika abundance and distribution in the North Cascades.

Historically, North Cascades pika populations have lived comfortably above 4,000 feet, gaining protection from predators, such as weasels, coyotes and eagles as they hide under rocks in the evening, and stock up “haypiles” (collections of vegetation to dry and store) during the cool parts of the day. 

Their small size (6-ounce, 6-8 inches) make them “homebodies” – rarely traveling more than a couple hundred meters a day. So they are stuck in remnants of habitat at the mercy of fires, drought, and disease.  Pikas don’t hibernate in winter, but live on their cache of haypiles. They stay warm under a dense furry coat and a metabolism that maintains a body temperature of 104 degrees. This is perfect during nine months of winter, but not so much on a hot July day. To avoid overheating, they take refuge under rocks.

Christophersen told me that although low-elevation pikas can seek refuge from hot summer temperatures by going underground more often than their higher-elevation relatives, it’s a trade-off in less time spent foraging and stockpiling precious resources for the winter. 

The park study suggests pikas have the ability to move to higher elevations, but there’s no evidence yet that any given population has done so.  Pacific Northwest climate models predict increases in annual average temperatures and seasonal changes with drier summers and wetter autumns and winters. The study notes “lower elevation pika populations deserve more scrutiny because of their smaller population size and greater chance of being negatively affected by climate change.” 

Climate change was identified as the only potential threat to the American pika when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a status review of the species in 2010. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate change models indicate steadily increasing surface temperatures in pika habitat.

But since pikas spend the heat of the day underground, the Service noted that surface temperature changes might not be as useful as subsurface temperatures for predicting the effects of climate change on pika populations. They concluded that pikas have demonstrated enough flexibility in their behavior and physiology to survive such changes and don’t warrant protective listing under the Endangered Species Act.

That adaptability was indicated in research in the Columbia River Gorge, another lower elevation habitat, where pikas were caching haypiles 100 meters from talus slopes, taking refuge in the shady forest instead of the talus hillside, and eating moss that’s abundant year round.

That data gives me hope.  I’ll head back up to the Sultan Basin this summer to listen for the pikas’ distinctive calls, hoping they made it through another hot summer. If they are to survive a rapidly changing climate, they’ll have to adapt, move, or perish -- just like the rest of us.

July 2018

A close-up of a bumblebee on flower.
A close-up of a rufous hummingbird in mid-air.
"Hummingbirds and bumble bees are important pollinators of wild and agricultural plants and they survive each day on a razor's edge due to their high energy needs," said Bishop. "Pesticide exposure in these animals may have impacts on their health and the ecosystem services they provide to humans and wildlife."
Bumblebee photo by Jim Cummins, hummingbird by Doug Keuhn

Be careful with pesticides to protect your pollinators

If you’re battling summertime invasions of bugs and weeds in your fruit, vegetable or flower garden, be careful not to harm the pollinators you need.

Bumblebees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other animals fertilize plants by moving pollen from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma of a flower, and that ultimately creates seeds or fruit. Without them, there’s no reproduction.

New research in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia reveals that hummingbirds and bumble bees may be harmed by exposure to neonicotinoid and other pesticides through routes that are widespread and complex. The findings are published in this month’s edition of the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

Led by Dr. Christine A. Bishop of Environment and Climate Change Canada, researchers used cloacal fluid and fecal pellets from hummingbirds living near blueberry fields to measure pesticide exposure. They also collected native bumble bees and their pollen, and blueberry leaves and flowers from both conventionally sprayed and organic blueberry farms.

The researchers detected pesticides and related compounds in the hummingbirds, revealing accumulation of pesticide exposures of multiple types. The bumble bees, their pollen, and blueberry flowers contained pesticides, with the highest concentration of the insecticide imidacloprid in pollen from organic farms.

"Hummingbirds and bumble bees are important pollinators of wild and agricultural plants and they survive each day on a razor's edge due to their high energy needs," said Bishop. "Pesticide exposure in these animals may have impacts on their health and the ecosystem services they provide to humans and wildlife."

So what can you do to ward off pests but protect pollinators?

Use some kind of “Integrated Pest Management” system.

Instead of simply spraying everything with harsh chemicals, consider using several different approaches to avoid or lessen the impact on those pollinators you need.

The Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit organization to “help people protect pollinators to ensure healthy ecosystems and food security,” advises using beneficial insects, like ladybugs, lacewings and stinkbugs that eat aphids and other harmful insects. These beneficial insects can be attracted to your garden naturally by providing plant nectar sources for them in yarrow, dill, cosmos, sunflower, black-eyed susan, coneflower and other native flowering plants.

Instead of pesticides, spray plants you need to protect with simple solutions of dish soap and water, or soapy water with a little hot pepper.

Use diatomaceous earth (DE) powder to control unwanted insects, although avoid dusting it directly on flowerheads where it can hurt bees. DE is the fossilized remains of freshwater phytoplankton or algae, mined as a crumbly rock that forms a soft powder. Abundant, safe, effective and inexpensive, it is considered a pesticide but works mechanically. On a microscopic level it looks like a multitude of tiny hollow cylinders covered in barbs, which penetrate the bodies of insects that tread across the powder. The porous nature of the powder also makes it absorbent, so it both injures the pest and draws out fluid to dry and kill it, usually within 24 hours.

If you have the time and patience, or can hire young help looking for summer spending money, physically remove pests from plants and pull weeds.

When you need to use a pesticide, be careful to read all label directions and environmental hazard statements before judiciously applying only on affected plants. Use pesticides just before dark, when pollinators are not actively foraging.

Consult with gardening and horticultural experts at your local conservation district or extension office for more ideas on how to control pests but still protect pollinators.

June 2018

Young buck grazing on a rose bush in garden.
Jeanne Hannah, who lives on Cottage Lake Creek in King County, sent us this photo called “Sharing My Garden” and said she doesn’t mind wildlife helping her prune!

Garden flowers can bring “good, bad and ugly” wildlife

June blooms can draw more to your yard and garden than family, friends and neighbors just stopping to smell the flowers.

Bumblebees, butterflies and hummingbirds are one thing. You might even have planted certain perennials, like bee balm (Monarda), coneflower (Echinacea), or coral bells (Heuchera) to attract them for your viewing pleasure.

Deer and gophers are quite another. Whether brazenly lopping off peonies or roses under the guise of a lovely and peaceful visitor, or invisibly gnawing out the bulbs and roots of irises or lilies from underground, they can play the “bad and ugly” roles in your summertime melodrama.  

As graceful and photogenic as they are, deer can frustrate even the most benevolent, wildlife-appreciative gardener, especially when there’s a small herd helping themselves. When natural forage dries out as summer advances, irrigated landscapes and gardens become even more attractive to more deer.

Deer repellents, commercially available or homemade, can be a good short term solution. They work best if applied before deer develop a routine feeding pattern. So even if you’ve only had one or two deer so far this year, start applying repellents now to prevent a habit and herd from forming. Most repellents have to be re-applied after rain or watering.  They work because they have a disagreeable odor and/or taste – disagreeable not only to deer, but also to you, so take precautions when handling.

Like most animals, deer are neophobic (fearful of novel or new-on-the-landscape objects), so things like barking dogs, scarecrows, bright lights, radios, whistles and other noisemakers can work – for a while. Deer soon get accustomed to these things and damage resumes after they realize no actual harm will come to them.

The best insurance against deer (or elk) damage is a high (six to eight feet) woven-wire fence. That may be the ticket for a vegetable garden, or around individual young trees or shrubs. But fencing may not be practical nor aesthetically acceptable around an entire landscape or flower bed.

Landscaping with deer-resistant plants may be your best alternative to fencing.

There is no such thing as a completely deer-proof plant in every situation with every deer. Whether or not a plant will be eaten depends on several factors: the deer’s nutritional needs, its previous feeding experience, plant palatability, time of year, and availability of wild foods. When preferred foods are scarce, there are few plants that some deer will not at least try to eat. A large deer population can create competition for food, causing deer to eat many plants that they normally would avoid. A walk or drive through your neighborhood can give you an idea of what plants are being eaten or avoided by deer. 

In most areas, deer love roses, willows, clover, dandelions, and many kinds of berry-producing plants. A list of food plants used by Pacific Northwest deer is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/deer.html#food.

Deer tend to avoid established (not necessarily young new growth) irises, daylilies, daffodils, sedums, poppies, lilacs, lavender and many herbs. A list of deer-resistant plants is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/deer.html#landscaping.

Close-up of a pocket gopher showing his teeth and front claws.
The pocket gopher uses its large front teeth and clawed paws to dig and cut and eat roots and bulbs. (Photo by Ty Smedes)

Gophers, more precisely called “pocket gophers” for their cheek pouches or pockets, are burrowing rodents rarely seen above their underground tunnels. But the results of their feeding and digging habits can be just as devastating as marauding deer.

Although many devices are commercially available for use to frighten pocket gophers (vibrating stakes, ultrasonic devices, pinwheels, etc.), gophers do not frighten easily. This is probably because of their repeated exposure to noise and vibrations from sprinklers, people, pets and livestock moving about, and lawnmowers and other power equipment.

No repellents currently available will reliably protect plantings from pocket gophers. Mothballs, garlic, spearmint leaves, predator urine placed in tunnels—and a perimeter of mole plant or castor bean planted around gardens—have all provided mixed results. Such control strategies may be experimented with where gophers are an occasional problem, but not a long-term threat.

Constructing a barrier to keep pocket gophers from tunneling into an area can be labor-intensive and costly, but it’s recommended for small areas. Flowerbeds can be protected by complete underground screening of the sides and bottom. Raised beds with rock or wooden side supports will only require bottom protection.

Natural predators—including snakes, coyotes, long-tailed weasels, skunks, and barn owls —kill gophers. Encouraging these species, or not discouraging them, may help control a gopher population.

Learn more about dealing with gophers at https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/gophers.html#conflicts.

And learn more about planting for those “good” bees, butterflies and hummingbirds at https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/attracting/.


May 2018

What do you do with a baby bird out of the nest?

Cartoon chart showing what to do if you find a baby songbird out of the nest.
This clever key chart, by naturalist and science communicator Rosemary Mosco, has the low-down on what to do, including if itís not even a bird!

It’s that time of year when baby birds are hatching in nests, being fed by parent birds, and starting to fly.

Sooner or later, no matter where you live, you’ll come across a baby bird on the ground, and you’ll have to decide if you should rescue it.

This clever key chart, by naturalist and science communicator Rosemary Mosco, has the low-down on what to do, including if it’s not even a bird!  (Mosco creates scientifically accurate but humorous cartoons, graphics and books to connect people with the natural world; see more of her work at: http://www.birdandmoon.com/.)

As the key shows, what to do depends on what you find.

Obviously injured birds, babies or adults, should be taken to a local wildlife rehabilitator for skilled treatment and eventual release back into the wild. You can find Washington licensed wildlife rehabilitators listed by county at  https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/how_to_find.html.

An uninjured naked hatchling should be returned to its nest if you can find it, or placed nearby in a makeshift nest off the ground and out of harm’s way.

An uninjured nestling that is just beginning to grow feathers should be treated in the same way.

An uninjured fledgling that is feathered and hopping around should be left alone and protected from curious pets or children so that parent birds can continue to care for it.

A feathered baby dinosaur should be viewed as an incredible addition to your birding life list or at least an opportunity to add a little levity to your day!

Seriously, keeping baby birds off the injury list may be as simple as confining your cat or dog, especially at this time of year. 

Wildlife rehabilitators see evidence of cat predation on birds too regularly. Some cat owners don’t believe their pets would cause such damage because they keep them well-fed. But cats are instinctual hunters, not necessarily driven by hunger to prey on birds and small mammals. A well-fed cat can become a “super predator” because it’s in such good condition.

Learn more about what you can do to help baby birds out of the nest at: https://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/baby_birds.html.

April 2018

A six-year old gyr-falcon with his handler.
Six-year-old gyr-peregrine falcon Titus with handler Brad Felger.

Falcons are on the job in agriculture

By Jamie Bails, WDFW Habitat Biologist

In a Skagit County field of blueberries, Titus is about to start his day job.

The six-year-old gyr-peregrine falcon squeals in anticipation as tiny GPS transmitters are fixed to his yellow legs with zip ties. Clasped to his arm, his owner Brad Felger carries Titus away from the truck to give him plenty of space for take-off.

Felger flips off Titus’s eye-covering, calming hood and in a split second the falcon’s sharp eyes focus on a flock of starlings at the edge of the field. He flies to a perch on a wooden post 100 yards away to size up the birds who threaten to eat the unharvested blueberry crop.

After a few minutes on the post, Titus darts up to the higher vantage point of a dairy barn roof. He’s waiting for the right moment to move toward the starlings that hover at the edge of the field.  

When Titus glides casually toward them, the starlings immediately fly away from the blueberries and back to the safety of a nearby cedar grove. Just the presence of a raptor or bird-of-prey in the sky keeps the starlings from invading the blueberry bushes. 

Felger is a licensed master falconer who trained Titus to work crop depredation abatement under direct supervision.  He first used falcons this way in California in the 1980’s, volunteering to fly his birds in vineyards near San Luis Obispo for fun. When a federal commercial permitting system was introduced, he began earning income with the practice. He moved his business to Washington’s Skagit Valley where he keeps a couple dozen licensed raptors for abatement work and breeds peregrine and aplomado falcons and merlins for sale to other falconers.

Over the last 3,000 years, falconry has evolved from a nomadic hunting sport in Central Asia, to living trophies for British nobility, to assistance in saving wildlife species, to another way of dealing with pest birds in agriculture fields.  

In the U.S., after World War II, falconers worked to legalize their sport, forming the National Association of Falconers of America in 1961 and getting involved in wildlife management when pesticides were identified as a main cause of wild raptor population declines. When the peregrine falcon was listed as an endangered species, falconers formed The Peregrine Fund to breed captive birds for supplementation of wild populations. Coupled with a ban on the pesticide DDT, this effort brought peregrines back from the brink of extinction.

With improved breeding methods by falconers, and increases in wild populations, more birds became available for falconer use and training.  Under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other federal and state laws, falconers are licensed and allowed to take, breed and house certain numbers and species of birds in facilities that meet strict criteria. There are about 5,000 licensed falconers in the U.S., over 280 of them licensed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in Washington state.

With advances in technology, falconry birds are better tracked and cared for today, says master falconer Tom Cox who trains kestrels at his home near Duvall and has been passionate about falconry since he was first licensed at age 15.  

For example, instead of bells wrapped around the legs to keep track of birds, falconers use telemetry or GPS transmitters to locate birds.

After a falcon is acquired from a breeder or caught from the wild, apprentice falconers spend two years of intense training under a mentor or sponsor. The bird is kept in close contact with the falconer, who establishes trust by providing food hourly. After trust has been established, training outside begins.  First, the bird jumps at short distances from a perch to the gloved hand, then a little further with a lure on a tether, until gradually, the falcon is flown free in longer distances.

The falcon flies and hunts by instinct, but returns to the falconer for food. When a bird makes a kill, the falconer is hopefully close by so that the prey can be removed. By controlling the amount of food a bird receives, the falconer also controls its behavior. A trained bird responds to the falconer not out of affection or fear, but because it associates the falconer with food.

Falconry has never been a substitute for traditional hunting methods, but a way to form a bond with a wild creature and personally witness its hunting prowess.

That bond is crucial to Felger’s use of Titus in pest control work.  In the past 30 years, this use of falcons has emerged as an environmentally and economically viable way to reduce damage from species like starlings, robins, gulls, and crows who feast on vineyard and orchard crops from early spring to late fall. 

Felger says a single falcon can protect 200 acres of blueberries just by cruising the corners of fields for several hours each day. He estimates that having birds protect blueberry fields can raise the harvest from 4,200 pounds to 40,000 pounds over a single year. After the harvest is over, flocks are welcome to clean out berries which have fallen to the ground, or to feast on the insects and keep the fields clean of diseases.

Farmers also use everything from tinsel to guns to dissuade flocks from eating crops. But most methods only work once as birds quickly learn to ignore them.  

“They can’t ignore a falcon,” Felger says.  “Nothing affects prey species behavior like a predator in the sky.”

To learn more about falconry in Washington, including how to become a licensed falconer, see https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/falconry/.

March 2018

Foliage and berries of the Japanese yew.
Cross-section view of the crop of a dead turkey.
Top photo: Japanese yew, one of the many toxic varieties of yew. Bottom photo: Cross-section view of the crop of a dead turkey that had eaten the toxic plant.

Don’t plant yews in your backyard wildlife landscape

If you’re adding plants to your backyard wildlife landscape this spring, don’t plant yews.

Yews are very popular in residential and commercial landscapes because they are attractive evergreen shrubs or small trees with bright red fruits. They’re easy to grow because they tolerate a variety of soil types and can thrive in the shade of other trees. They’re readily available for sale in nurseries and garden stores and can be propagated by bare root and cuttings.

But yews can be toxic to wildlife, livestock, pets and sometimes even humans.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) veterinarian Kristin Mansfield says Washington moose and wild turkeys have died from eating yew, and other wildlife may have, too. Across the border in Idaho, her colleagues at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game have documented yew-caused deaths among elk, moose, deer, and pronghorn, especially in winter when the evergreen yew leaves are sometimes the only green available.

Most species of yew contain highly poisonous alkaloids known as taxines that affect sodium and calcium channels in the heart.  

All parts of the yew, except the fleshy red berry-like fruit around the seed, contain the alkaloid. Fruit-eating birds like thrushes and waxwings digest the fleshy covering and pass the hard, highly poisonous seeds in their droppings.

Mammals, both wild and domestic, have different digestive processes that release the taxines into the body when they ingest yew leaves or fruit.

The yew species most commonly used in landscaping is the Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), native to Japan and neighboring regions.  Many varieties and related cultivars of this species are widely planted throughout the U.S., where some reach small tree height of 40 feet. It is highly toxic, with only a handful of needles needed to kill mammals, from dogs and horses to elk and moose.

Other poisonous yew species include:

  • English yew, or European yew (Taxus baccata), a shrub or small tree native to Eurasia with many varieties widely planted in the U.S.
  • Chinese yew (Taxus chinensis, T. sumatrana, T. celebica), a shrub or small tree native to Asia with a few varieties sometimes planted in the U.S.
  • Canadian yew, northern yew (Taxus canadensis), a low-growing shrub native to eastern North America with a few varieties planted in the U.S.

The Pacific yew, or western yew (Taxus brevifolia), is native to Washington, Idaho, and other parts of the Pacific Northwest where it provides winter forage for moose, elk and deer without apparent harm. 

These wild ungulates appear to be able to break down the poisons, but careful dietary studies to determine the mechanism to defer the taxines have not been done. Reports on its toxicity to domestic livestock are mixed. 

Pacific yews are large shrubs or medium-sized trees reaching 60 feet tall that occur in wet, shady habitats. It’s not typically used in landscaping probably because of its high water requirement.

Livestock are affected by grazing where yews have seeded or when trimmings are fed to them without awareness of the danger. Puppies, who chew everything, and adult dogs that chew sticks and other plant material, are also at risk for poisoning from yews.

Children have been treated for poisoning after consuming the fruit of yew shrubs. The seeds resist the effects of digestive enzymes, so whether or not seeds were chewed affects risk.

Signs of yew toxicity, which can appear within one to three hours of ingestion, include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, weakness, pupil dilation, cardiac arrhythmias, hypotension, respiratory distress, and seizures. Fatal amounts in adult humans have been estimated at 50 to 100 leaves.

In Idaho, fatal ingestion of Japanese yew has been documented in elk, moose, deer, and pronghorn, especially in winter when animals are driven to human habitation by snow depth and yew shrubs are one of the only green plants available. In some locations, winter weather pushes these wild ungulates into urban neighborhoods, increasing the likelihood that Japanese yew plants will be encountered.

To reduce the risk to wildlife, homeowners should not only avoid introducing yews to their landscape, but should also inventory their property and remove any Japanese yew or other introduced ornamental yew currently growing.

Yews can be identified by their short, flat evergreen leaves (1‑3 cm long and 2‑3 mm broad, arranged spirally on the stem) and bright red, pea-sized fruits that have an opening in the bottom that shows a single hard, brown seed inside.

These shrubs should be disposed of in a safe landfill. Be aware the dead yews or dry, pruned branches are poisonous. Homeowners can wrap the plants with burlap to prevent access by wildlife. Yews re-sprout from cut stumps, so all large roots need to be dug out unless an herbicide has been used to kill the roots.

Native evergreen shrubs that tolerate shade and can be planted instead of yew include:

  • Western swordfern (Polystichum munitum)
  • Mountain or Oregon boxleaf (Pachystima myrsinites)
  • Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)
  • Buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis)
  • Sumac (Rhus glabra)
  • Oregon grape-holly (Mahonia or Berberis aquifolium)

February 2018

Count birds Feb. 16-19 for science

Participate Feb. 16-19 in the 21st annual
Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

Whether you’re a casual backyard birdwatcher or a veteran birder with lots of species on your life list, you can participate Feb. 16-19 in the 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC).

The GBBC is a world-wide citizen science project that collects late winter data on wild birds to create an annual snapshot of their distribution and abundance. It’s coordinated by the National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Bird Studies Canada, Wild Birds Unlimited, and other bird conservation partners.  

For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count you simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, for as long as you wish, and then enter your data on-line.  Powered by eBird, results are displayed on-line in near real-time, so you can quickly see where else in your community or the world other people are seeing the same and other species. 

Last year more than 214,000 people of all ages and walks of life from more than 100 countries participated, and reported millions of birds of some 6,200 species.

The United States always has the highest participation, and last year Washington state had the fourth highest number of species at 215 and the eighth highest number of checklists submitted at 4,252. Our neighbors to the north in British Columbia recorded 206 species -- more than any other Canadian province.

Eight of the top ten most frequently reported species everywhere are common in Washington – American crow, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, house finch, house sparrow, and white-breasted nuthatch.

Eight of the top ten most numerous species reported everywhere are also common in Washington –  snow goose, red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, European starling, mallard, ring-billed gull, American coot, and American crow.

GBBC participants are encouraged to submit photos of birds and enter them into the count’s annual contest. Last year, out of a total of 60 winners worldwide, two Washington residents received honorable mention for their photos – Keith Szafranski’s Anna’s hummingbird and Christine Haines’ Bohemian waxwing.

The GBBC (and other citizen science efforts like Project FeederWatch and the annual Christmas Bird Count) help scientists and bird enthusiasts learn a lot by just knowing where birds are when. Bird populations are constantly in flux, so no team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

Birds counts like this help them get the “big picture” about what is happening to bird populations. The longer these data are collected, the more meaningful they become in helping scientists investigate far-reaching questions, like these:

  • How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?
  • Where are species like winter finches, whose numbers wax and wane from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns?
  • How does the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?
  • How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?
  • What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

To participate in this year’s count and help advance the science of birds, go to http://gbbc.birdcount.org/about/.

If you’re new to the count, or have not participated since before the 2013 merger with eBird, you must create a free online account to enter your checklists. If you already have an account, just use the same login name and password. If you have already participated in another Cornell Lab citizen-science project, like Project FeederWatch, you can use your existing login information, too.

If this year’s GBBC dates don’t work for you, you can always enter bird observation data through eBird anytime, year-round, at https://ebird.org/home.


January 2018

Photo collage of birds that reflects Washington's bird diversity.
Washington's bird diversity

2018 is the Year of the Bird!

2018 is the Year of the Bird because it’s the 100th anniversary of Congress passing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, one of the earliest environmental laws enacted anywhere in the world.

The new law in 1918 officially made it a crime to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill,” or “sell” a migratory bird or any of its parts, including nests, eggs, and feathers.

Although it was pivotal legislation that continues to save birds’ lives, ongoing habitat loss and new threats like climate change need attention for further protection of birds.

That’s why Audubon, National Geographic, Bird Life International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are leading other organizations and agencies like ours in this yearlong celebration of birds, calling attention to the plight of birds and helping everyone who loves them to take action for ensuring their future.

Audubon magazine editor Mark Jannot notes that the Birds and Climate Report released in 2014, which used data from the Christmas Bird Countand breeding bird surveys,  projected that more than half the bird species in North America would face serious peril from the effects of global warming in the coming decades.

“The news hit hard,” Jannot writes, “and not just among the cadre of dedicated bird lovers you’d expect to recoil at such an announcement, but among a far greater population: the bird likers, the bird curious, even the ‘Birds? I barely notice them except in the spring when they start singing again in the tree outside my bedroom window’ people.

“It seems that even when self-interest isn’t enough to roust ourselves to action against an amorphously intractable foe like climate change, there’s something about imagining its impact on birds—about conjuring a future in which that birdsong outside the window fails to return one spring—that breaks through. And it breaks through in a way that can bust up the carved-in-granite tribal political loyalties that seem to characterize our current age.

“In our research after the study came out, we discovered that a great many people who reject the proposition that humans are the primary drivers of climate change are actually willing to support actions to mitigate its effects when they learn that doing so might help protect birds.”

Birds, says Jannot, bind us.

Along with Audubon and the other leaders of this Year of the Bird celebration, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) encourages you to take actions this year that help some of the 300-plus species of birds that call Washington home. Some simple things you can do include:

  • Manage your home landscape to provide year-round nesting and foraging habitat for birds
  • Use native trees, shrubs and other plants to maximize bird use and minimize watering and other energy-intensive care
  • Avoid or minimize use of pesticides that can harm birds, both directly and indirectly with reduction of their food chain
  • Reduce bird-window collisions by covering windows and keeping bird baths and feeders away from windows
  • Keep cats indoors to prevent added predation on birds
  • Help birds stay safe during migration by reducing night lighting around your home and throughout your community

Learn more about helping birds through WDFW’s Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program at https://wdfw.wa.gov/living/backyard/.

Learn more about how you can #birdyourworld this year at http://www.audubon.org/yearofthebird.