Burke Museum Home

Frequently Asked Questions


Q: Is the Ornithology collection open to the public?
A: The Ornithology collection is open by appointment only, weekdays 10 a.m–5 p.m. Preference is given to those using the collection for original research. Visits must be arranged through the collection managers.

Q: Can you help me identify this feather?
A: Identifying feathers is often surprisingly difficult. Each species has many types, shapes, and sometimes colors of feathers, and there are hundreds of species in Washington, so identifying a single feather may take hours even with the resource of our Spread Wing Collection. Thus, we usually do not have sufficient staff time to accommodate these requests. You may obtain helpful information from a good field guide such as the National Geographic Guide to the Birds of North America or the Sibley Guide to Birds, published by the National Audubon Society. Or, you may wish to bring the feather to Artifact ID Day, a day Burke staff devote to helping identify mystery objects for the public.

Curator of Birds
Curator of Birds Sievert Rohwer instructing undergraduate student Shannon DeVaney in the Burke's Avian Specimen Preparation class.
Photo by Sharon Birks

Q: If I find a dead bird, can it be used for research or teaching?

A: Salvaging birds you find dead can make an important contribution to knowledge. Salvaged birds are turned into scientific specimens used by students and by researchers around the world. Each year the Burke Museum takes in hundreds of birds from wildlife rehabilitation clinics and members of the public. Most were hit by cars, died from hitting windows, were killed by cats, or were victims of natural or man-made disasters. Salvaged birds form an important part of the Burke's extensive research collections, and are the core of the Burke's Teaching Collection—used in both K–12 and University education programs.

Q: Isn't it illegal for me to salvage dead birds?
A: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act gives federal protection to all but a handful of birds (including some game birds and invasive, introduced species such as the European Starling Sturnus vulgaris, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, and Rock Dove Columba livia (Pigeon). So, yes, technically, it is illegal to possess or transport most birds (or bird parts) without a permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

In practice, however, the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office and the State Dept. of Fish and Wildlife allow the public to possess birds for the time needed to deliver them to an approved educational institution such as the Burke Museum. Thus, if you call one of these offices having found a dead bird, they will likely refer you to our Ornithology Division. You should not consider keeping the material for your own use.

Q: What should I do when I find a dead bird?
A: To be valuable as scientific specimens, salvaged birds must have date and locality information. Include the time of day that the bird died (only if known accurately) and nature of death (e.g., window kill), along with any other associated observations, and your name and contact information in case we have questions when we prepare it. Never guess about data. Every specimen has the potential to be used in research, and wrong information is much worse than no information.

You can attach information to a bird by tying a tag to its leg, or by including a note written in permanent pen or pencil. Place the bird in a sealed plastic bag (such as Ziploc), freeze it, and transport it to the Burke Museum at your earliest convenience. If needed, call the Ornithology Office (206) 543-1668 for further instructions. The Washington Ornithological Society also collects salvaged birds for the Burke at its monthly meetings at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

Great Horned Owl
Salvaged Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, with data tag tied to its leg.
Photo by Sharon Birks

Hairy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus.
Photo by Stuart MacKay

Q: A woodpecker is hammering on my house—why?
A: Drumming

There is good reason for this irritating noise. The behavior is called "drumming" and is similar in function to song in other birds. Woodpeckers drum by rapidly pounding their bill against a hard surface. Drumming is used to communicate, so they want it to be loud. Thus, in addition to hollow snags, woodpeckers often use metal street lamps, flashing around chimneys, or siding boards with a hollow space below, as drumming sites because they produce a dramatic sound that can be heard far away.

Drumming can occur year-round but is usually most intense during the breeding season, especially during early spring, when birds defend territories and attract mates. A male woodpecker may drum regularly until he attracts a female; females may also drum. For example, male European Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Dendrocopos major, change their rate of drumming dramatically once they have a mate and begin building a nest—from 500–600 to 100–200 times per day. While there is little you can do to stop drumming by a woodpecker, it will probably not last long. If it does, perhaps you can empathize—it often means the drummer has lost its mate.

Species differences in drumming behavior
Drumming patterns are species-specific, although differences can be subtle. Woodpeckers that are commonly heard drumming in Western Washington include Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus), Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers(Picoides pubescens and Picoides villosus), Red-breasted Sapsuckers(Sphyrapicus ruber), and Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus). Downy Woodpeckers produce a steady, rapid series of staccato sounds: usually 10-15 hits in just under a second; they will often repeat this with only a few seconds in between bursts. Northern Flickers produce a similar pattern that typically lasts slightly longer—their drumming appears to be mainly related to territorial defense, and anecdotal evidence indicates they are particularly likely to be spotted using metal objects for sound production. 

Pileated Woodpeckers produce powerfully loud, longer-lasting (up to 3 sec.) bursts of drumming that often accelerate at the beginning and are given about once a minute. Red-breasted Sapsuckers produce a short rapid burst of taps followed by a slowing, irregular series of single or double taps. If you reproduce the sound of drumming accurately enough by rapping sticks on a hollow tree, often you can attract a drumming male to investigate the intruder in his territory.

Excavation pecking
Creating nest holes or excavating for insects is quieter, slower and more methodical than drumming. Both of these activities also looks different—birds often twist their heads sideways to open up a larger hole in the surface of the wood. Woodpeckers that bore holes in the sides of houses are probably either foraging or looking for appropriate nesting sites.

Q: A bird is hitting itself repeatedly against my window. Is it crazy?

A: No, it's not crazy, and it's not trying to get into your house. Your bird is attacking its reflection, which it perceives to be an intruder on its territory. Such behavior is usually confined to a short period of time in early spring, when territorial aggression is at its peak. It is almost always male birds because males defend territories to attract mates. Males that perceive their own images tend to return time after time to look for the intruder, often in the early morning, just when the noise on your window is particularly annoying. Even masking the window being attacked often fails to stop this annoying behavior because the resident will check out the area where he keeps seeing this "intruder" only to find his reflection in another nearby window! Birds attacking their own image typically fly at the window repeatedly from a short distance, not really injuring themselves but producing a lot of noise and wasting a lot of energy (this is in contrast to birds that fly into your window because they are confused by the reflected landscape or are being chased by a predator). 

The only effective strategy in dealing with this behavior is to eliminate the reflection (see next question). Otherwise, you can ignore the behavior, preferably with a gin and tonic in hand, with the knowledge that it is specific to a very short time of year, and will end soon. We promise.

Male American Robins
Male American Robins, Turdus migratorius, frequently attack their reflections in the window during the breeding season.
Photo by Stuart MacKay

Q: Birds are dying from hitting my windows. What can do about this?
A: Birds that are killed in window collisions are usually simply seeing the reflection of natural surroundings in the window as an extension of their habitat. Over 35 million bird deaths are estimated to occur annually in the United States due to collisions with windows. The only way to stop this is to get rid of the reflection or interrupt it so that it looks less real to the bird. You can cover the window or apply something to the outside such as strips of tape or a cutout figure resembling a bird of prey (window treatments on the inside generally to not work), or put up any kind of barrier that essentially destroys the image (e.g., a thick mesh). You can also try installing something large, such as a plant, in front of the window to obstruct it.

Birds are most likely to crash into windows in the panic of being pursued by local, bird-eating raptors: Cooper's Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) and Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus). Both are strongly attracted to the flocks of birds found at back-yard feeders, and they often meet their own demise by striking windows in the heat of pursuit. Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks are similar looking, but Cooper's Hawks are larger and tend to pursue larger prey (medium sized birds such as thrushes and jays), whereas Sharp-shinned Hawks are more likely to pursue smaller birds such as sparrows.

American Crow
American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos.
Photo by Stuart MacKay

Q: Why are there so many crows? What do I do if I see a banded crow?

A: The crow population has increased dramatically in Seattle over the past 40 years. Increases in human population have reduced forest cover, creating open foraging areas preferred by crows, and generated food sources such as garbage that crows are quick to exploit.

The communal roosting of crows at night in the non-breeding season is particularly noticeable and sometimes disruptive. Crows probably roost communally for the same reason many other birds do—to avoid predation and share information about food resources. When crows are breeding, starting in about April in the Seattle area, they disperse onto territories, females stay on nests, and birds are generally less noticeable. However, as winter approaches crows often form huge roosts, where they congregate at sunset. They typically commute along regular flight paths, stopping at traditional pre-roosting sites along the way and often vocalizing loudly. Major roosts can reach truly astounding numbers: up to 2 million birds in places in the Midwest. In the morning, birds disperse and follow each other to foraging sites. In general, larger roosts are associated with greater dispersal distances during the day—birds often fly many miles away to feed.

Crow Surveys and Banded Crows
Ongoing surveys by the Seattle Audubon Society during its Christmas Bird Counts provide historic summaries of the growth of crow populations in this area. Researchers in the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources are also conducting a long-term study on crow behavior and population dynamics and have marked many individuals with color-bands. If you see a banded crow, please report it.

Q: A baby bird fell out of its nest. If I touch it will parents reject it? What can I do?

A: It's a common myth that touching nestlings will cause the parent birds to reject them. However, most birds do not have a well-developed sense of smell and thus touching their nestlings will not cause rejection because of human-associated odors. Sometimes nestlings are prematurely startled out of their nests before they are ready to leave the nest on their own accord. Once out, they cannot get back in by themselves and are easy prey for a predator. If you see nestlings that cannot flutter to safety, they are likely too young to be out of the nest.

You can try returning a straying nesting to its nest by simply picking it up and placing it back in, then leaving so as not to interfere with the parents. If the nestling appears reluctant to stay in the nest (which is often the case if it has been startled out), the following technique sometimes works: hold the nestling firmly but gently in your hand and rotate it rapidly around as if you were winding up for a baseball pitch. If you do this for several seconds, the nestling will become dizzy enough that it will stay in the nest while you retreat. If you have caused a whole brood to bolt prematurely you will need to catch them all and spin them all at once to return them to the nest. Yes, it's a funny image. Yes, we're serious. You do not have to explain your behavior to your neighbors.

Nestling of Citrine Wagtail
Nestling of Citrine Wagtail, Motacilla citreola.
Photo by Diana Thayer