Federal Way is for the birds | Chris Carrel

I still recall a conversation with a friend a few years back after a trip to a part of Mexico famed for its diverse bird populations.

Nice as it was, he felt that Mexico’s birds couldn’t compare to what he heard and saw in Federal Way on a regular basis.

“I wake up in the morning here,” he said, “and I hear so many more birds by our house and I see so many more. Birds of all kinds.” While he didn’t ask for his money back for the trip, he clearly felt that as far as a resource for bird lovers, he was already getting a good deal in Federal Way.

His observation ran counter to the prevailing wisdom about suburban cities like Federal Way, which are supposed to be sterile asphalt prairies fit only for crows and starlings, Eastern gray squirrels and mall walkers.

However, my friend’s observation is now getting scientific support from the University of Washington’s John Marzluff, an ecologist who, coincidentally, made his bones with his research on the ultimate urban avian, the crow. According to Marzluff, suburbs like Federal Way are actually a boon to native birds. Counterintuitive as it is, as farms and forests are converted to suburbs, the number and diversity of native birds actually increase.

Marzluff has been tracking birds in the suburbs and the rapidly developing suburban fringes for the past decade. He has been monitoring 27 research plots on the developing suburban fringes and counting bird numbers and species. As the houses sprung up and the people moved in, the birds followed. Or, rather, instead of birds disappearing, new ones moved in, as the newly created suburban habitats supported new native species.

The key seems to be that suburbs, again counter to what we think, provide a diversity of habitat that provides niches for a variety of birds. Large expansive lawns aside, the ‘burbs often have lots of smaller patches of forest, whether parks or greenbelt, along with woodlands and a variety of shrubs and trees that people plant in their yards.

And, of course, there are the backyard bird feeders.

A quick inventory of Federal Way demonstrates the suburban habitat diversity that Marzluff identified. We have a wealth of second growth forests like Poverty Bay Park and Dumas Bay Park and true forested gems like the West Hylebos Wetlands. Celebration Park’s back 40 has wetlands and forests that support birds. Then there are the yards with little groves of trees that mix native conifers with deciduous trees like vine maple. Yards also provide shrub habitat that is especially popular with ground foragers like the spotted towhee.

The one type of suburban habitat that doesn’t support birds, according to Marzluff’s work, is the yard dominated by the huge expanse of lawn. These are so devoid of birds that the researcher refers to them as "scrapervilles." If you want to provide a bird-friendly lawn, let the grass grow over in places, or break it up with native trees and shrubs.

I found the bird habitat research interesting, and more than just from an academic perspective. This work tells us that if we want to continue to be a bird-friendly community, as we continue to develop, we need to continue to provide diverse habitats. Provide patches of forest (along with larger forests), understory habitat and native shrubs, along with the lawns. And don’t forget to leave dead trees, or snags, in places to provide habitat for cavity nesting birds like woodpeckers or wrens.

It’s OK to say Federal Way is for the birds. That’s a good thing.

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