How to Identify Wild Birds in Washington State

By Carol Sarao
The goldfinch, the state bird, Washington
gold 2 image by Skip Haywood from

For bird watchers, Washington state is a dream come true. The wide range of habitat--from semiarid shrub steppe and grassland to pine forests, canyons and coastal cliffs--ensures that a wealth of bird species thrive. Whether you are planning a trip to one of the bird-watching hotspots, such as the San Juan Islands, western Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula, or would merely like a better idea of which birds are patronizing your backyard feeder, there are basic observational techniques that will help you identify some common wild birds of Washington.

Identify the downy woodpecker by looking for a bird with a white belly, black back and black and white stripes on the sides of the head, moving around on the trunks of trees. The presence of a brilliant red patch on the back of the head--exhibited by the males--is another sign of the downy woodpecker, both the smallest and most common woodpecker in Washington state. You are likely to see them in forests, along rivers and even in city parks.

Use your ears to detect the presence of a downy woodpecker. You will often hear the rapid-fire rat-a-tat of their beaks against the wood of trees as they search for insects.

Distinguish the downy woodpecker from the Northern flicker--another common woodpecker--by looking for the splashes of red under the wings that typify the flicker, visible when the bird is in flight. In contrast to the downy woodpecker, which features black-and-white feathers, the flicker displays brown plumage, beautifully patterned with black spots, bars and crescents. This bird is often seen at feeders, where he will acrobatically hang upside down.

Identify the Townsend's warbler--a small songbird common in western Washington from May to September--by looking for lemon-yellow coloration on the breast and head, contrasting with black around the eye and a distinctive black stripe on the top of the head. You will see the Townsend's warbler in pine forests in the summer and, less frequently, in deciduous forests in the winter.

Distinguish the Townsend's warbler from the American goldfinch--the two birds can look quite similar--by looking for the larger amount of yellow plumage that indicates the goldfinch. The entire body of the goldfinch is bright daffodil yellow, with jet-black bars on the wings. The goldfinch, the state bird of Washington, is often found in brushy habitats at the edges of fields, and is common in mid-April to mid-October in the lowlands.

Use your ears to confirm your identification of the American goldfinch. Listen for its cheerful call of "per-chic-o-ree!" which it only utters when on the upstroke of its wavelike, undulating flight pattern.

Stake out a bird feeder to see a house finch. The males of the species resemble sparrows that are blushing, with rosy red faces and necks. These cheerful, gregarious songbirds are regular visitors at Washington feeders and are common in urban centers; they can also be seen in grasslands and open woods.

Look at the bird's silhouette. A hawklike shape, only with wing tips that are sharply pointed rather than rounded, is the mark of the peregrine falcon. Watch for a bird that appears as if it is skydiving, plunging straight down at dazzling speed in pursuit of a smaller bird. These birds of prey have slate-gray upper bodies and can be found along coastal cliffs and rocks. A pair of peregrine falcons famously nested in downtown Seattle in 1994.

Look on top of utility poles and other high structures to see a red-tailed hawk scanning for prey; also look for it gliding through the air over open fields. When the bird is in flight, the wing span will measure more than 4 feet. Plumage can vary from almost black to pale brown, with brick-colored tail feathers. According to the Woodland Park Zoo website, red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America. They are found throughout Washington and can be commonly seen along highways.

Consider the time of day when trying to identify birds. A large bird swooping down to seize its prey in the early twilight or in the first light of dawn is more than likely a barn owl. These spectacular-looking birds, which feature reddish-brown plumage, white faces set off by a distinct heart-shaped brown line, short beaks and and large, jet-black eyes, are often found along the coast, with high concentrations in Puget Sound and the Columbia Valley.