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From Coffee to Cormorants: Seattle Joins Ranks of Bird-Friendly Cities

A bird flies past the Seattle skyline | Photo: Sarah Han, some rights reserved
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A cormorant stretches its wings with the Space Needle in the background. | Photo: Curtiss Cronn, some rights reserved
A cormorant stretches its wings with the Space Needle in the background. | Photo: Curtiss Cronn, some rights reserved

Seattle may be best known for its aromatic coffee and swath of emerald forest that stretches across King County, but now it has another claim to fame. On Friday, May 5, the city signed an Urban Bird Treaty with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. By signing the Treaty, the city recognizes the importance of protecting urban bird habitat, reducing hazards to migrating birds and connecting people to nature within the city limits.

I relocated to Seattle in April, driving underneath the Pacific Flyway, a migration super highway that many birds take to find food, shelter and suitable breeding habitat. My 1,500 mile journey took me through vast deserts, high mountains and stunning coastal areas, as well as San Francisco and Portland, two other Urban Bird Treaty cities. It reinforced my view that we must protect both rural and urban habitat in order to successfully preserve avian species. 

Seattle’s Urban Bird Treaty — signed by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Seattle Audubon and Washington Audubon, and other partners — will protect habitat underneath the Pacific Flyway, which ranges from Alaska to Argentina and includes arctic tundra, coastal beaches, dense forests, and deserts. Each spring and fall, migrating birds pulse through the Seattle area and face many hazards such as predation by cats and collision with buildings. 

Today there are more than 25 Urban Bird Treaty cities across the nation. San Francisco, Portland, and Anchorage had previously signed the treaty, which means Seattle fills in a critical missing coastal link along the Pacific Flyway. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Bird Treaty Program is important because, according to one researcher, cities capture about 20 percent of the world’s avian biodiversity. Seattle boasts a diverse array of bird life from bald eagles to great blue herons to yellow warblers, all of whom will benefit from the Treaty programs.

Seattle signers of the Urban Bird Treaty
Seattle signers of the Urban Bird Treaty | Photo: courtesy Seattle Audubon

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Urban Bird Treaty program was started in 1999 to help local governments protect resident, migratory, and nesting birds within cities. The first treaty was signed by New Orleans, and Chicago followed suit soon after. The goal of the program is to create a partnership of federal, state, municipal, non-governmental and academic institutions in order to develop programs that help migrating birds and connect urban populations to the natural world. 

Urban Bird Treaty programs can cover a wide variety of topics including invasive species control, native plant restoration, bird-friendly architecture and lights out programs, in which the dazzling city lights that can confuse migrating birds are turned off during peak migration periods. 

Another key part of the UBT is to connect urban populations to the natural world through environmental education and citizen science. A final component of the Urban Bird Treaty program allows cities and partners to apply for grants administered through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Although the use of the word, “Treaty” in the name may suggest to some a regulatory function, becoming an urban bird treaty city does not automatically create rules, ordinances or laws that protect wildlife. However, some cities do choose to beef up their environmental rules after signing the Treaty. In 2015, several years after becoming an Urban Bird Treaty city, Portland, Oregon adopted a new green building policy that required all city buildings greater than 500 square feet to utilize bird friendly building and lighting design. San Francisco has also developed bird-safe architecture standards.

I can attest to the fact that the conservation measures that will be implemented as a result of Seattle’s Urban Bird Treaty will be good for both birds and people. Years ago, as an elementary school teacher, I led first grade students on bird walks, provisioned with toilet paper binoculars, through urban Van Nuys, California in search of crows, house finches and mourning doves. It was on these walks that my first grade students not only became fascinated with birds, but also exercised their bodies and developed an interest in science.

A great blue heron watches a passing ferry | Photo: J Patz, some rights reserved
A great blue heron watches a passing ferry | Photo: J Patz, some rights reserved

A heartfelt thank you is in order for the Fish and Wildlife Service, the city of Seattle and other partners that made the Treaty signing possible. The Treaty is a great first step in preserving urban bird habitat, but it will also connect children and adults alike with natural places within the increasingly crowded and fast paced life of our city. Seattle’s signing of the Treaty on May 5 is a harbinger of good things to come — for birds and people.

Banner: A bird flies past the Seattle skyline | Photo: Sarah Han, some rights reserved

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