profile

From Boise

The birds of Boise

published4 months ago
8 min read

Editor's note: Hello friends. Today is the first story of a three-part series exploring the flora and fauna of Boise. All three parts of this series were written by Amanda Patchin. A handful of photos were taken by Boise photographer Raghunandan Boggarapu. Enjoy! -Marissa


If you recently moved to Boise, you might be forgiven for assuming that our state bird is the Canada Goose.

On any drive through downtown Boise you are likely to see their waddling forms trundling across Myrtle, flapping down a sidewalk, or settling in a large flock onto the river. Between their size, the loud honking, and the droppings they leave all over the downtown parks, they are our most visible birds.

Happily, they are not the Idaho state bird nor are they our city’s mascot. They are mostly a nuisance, although I suppose their droppings do help keep our park lawns well-fertilized, they also make picnicking in certain spots impossible and they frequently stop traffic with their slow sauntering across busy streets.

Geese in flight. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Idaho’s actual state bird is the Mountain Bluebird. An elegant little thrush, the Mountain Bluebird is a beautiful representative of Idaho’s forested and mountainous terrain.

Unfortunately, they are almost never seen in Boise, because, true to their name, they prefer cool mountain regions over the high desert of our city. Their soft “few” call can be heard around McCall, throughout the Idaho panhandle, and in the mountainous Frank Church Wilderness. The rich turquoise of the males and the softer gray of the females decorate many a fence line along high altitude meadows but they are rarely seen anywhere near the city.

Mountain Bluebirds. Female (left), male (right). Credit: Mickey Barnes.

If Boise were to have a “bird of the city” there are several other excellent candidates thronging the river and the desert around the city. I would propose one of the following five candidates.

The Great Blue Heron

First, the Great Blue Heron. For sheer size and elegance, the Great Blue Heron is unmatched. With long legs, a long neck, and broad wingspan, its profile is unmistakable in the air.

Wing beats are slow and it usually has a long smooth glide path to land in the shallows. A Great Blue majestically sweeping down seems a benediction on the day.

A Great Blue Heron takes off. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Standing in the river, the Heron is sometimes hard to spot. A slate-gray with some richer blue feathers, when still, it blends seamlessly into the background of basalt boulders, river rocks, and flowing blue-gray water.

The Great Blue is an excellent example of Abbott Handerson Thayer’s theory of “countershading.” A painter and naturalist, he theorized that the patterns of lighter and darker feathers on birds were the exact reverse of a painter’s use of light and dark to give shape to a flat image. The light and dark patterns are an adaptation to “flatten” the three-dimensional shape of the bird so that it disappears into the background.

A Blue Heron waiting for prey. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Incidentally, Thayer’s theory, while mocked by some naturalists for its failure to account for brightly colored birds like the peacock or cardinals, was enormously influential in the development of camouflage for the U.S. military. And despite Thayer’s erroneous insistence that countershading was a universal adaptation, it is evidently a dominant adaptation with most birds having darker feathers above where light reflects most strongly and lighter feathers below where shade dominates.

Typically the Heron feeds on small fish although they also sometimes eat small rodents when they are away from the water. Herons usually eat their prey whole and sometimes choke to death on a fish when their eyes are bigger than their throats!

Walking along the Greenbelt, you will often see one stalking slowly along the river bank, sometimes see one flying through the branches that lace the skyline, and occasionally even spot one perched high up in a bare cottonwood in the winter. An elegant emblem of the natural beauty at the heart of our city.

A Blue Heron in waiting. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

The Killdeer

My second candidate for Boise’s Bird is at the opposite end of the ecology of Boise. The Killdeer, named for its distinctive “kee-eer” cry and not for any tendency to harm Cervidae, is a plover and is generally identified as a shorebird. However, Killdeer like areas with short vegetation and seem more than capable of surviving in the high desert so long as there is some pooled or flowing water nearby.

Killdeer close up. Credit: Jeremy Hynes

Killdeer are lovely little brown and white birds and, being ground-nesters, they have developed a clever strategy for protecting their little nests. If disturbed while incubating or while foraging nearby they will scamper away from their nests trailing a wing as though injured. As they run just in front of you or an actual predator emitting their piercing little call, they give the impression they will be easy prey luring you far away from the nest. Once they are satisfied you are not going to find their eggs or chicks they will suddenly fly up and away circling back to nurture their young.

With their efforts to fool you into leaving their home alone, they would be a fitting symbol of Idahoan’s reluctance to share the beauties of their state with others. And given that the Killdeer are being crowded out of Idaho’s farmland by the construction of subdivisions on their open fields, the symbolism seems at least slightly justifiable.

A Killdeer mid-call. Credit: Patrice Bouchard

The Bald Eagle

My third candidate for Boise’s bird of the city is the Bald Eagle. It’s big. It’s majestic. It’s striking and unmistakable. And, Bald Eagles can frequently be seen up and down the river, roosting in tall trees, swooping down to grab a fresh fish for lunch, soaring high above the foothills hunting rodents, or perching in their gigantic nests.

A huge bald eagle in flight. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Bald Eagles are easy to identify because of their large size and distinctive white-feathered heads. Males and females have the same coloration, however, the female Bald Eagle is about 25% larger than the male, sometimes reaching 15 pounds! Immature birds are a uniform dark brown and thus easily mistaken for Golden Eagles until they get their white heads when they reach adulthood at around 4 or 5 years old.

Because these birds are so magnificent, there is only one possible objection to naming them Boise’s bird, and that is their universality. Their natural range includes all of North America. They are already our national bird. And, while they were endangered a mere thirty years ago, they have now reached the conservation status of “Least Concern” meaning their population has fully recovered from the bad old days of heavy pesticide pollution in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

A Bald Eagle perched along the Boise River. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

The Cooper's Hawk

My fourth nominee is also a bird of prey. Given the importance of birds of prey to Boise’s culture, the Cooper’s Hawk would be an excellent representative of our city.

Cooper's Hawk. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

The World Center for Birds of Prey sits south of the city on the edge of the Owyhee desert. An impressive organization responsible for the preservation of raptor species and the history of falconry, it is an educational and thrilling place to visit.

Huge birds, rescued from illness or injury, live at the center, while falconers train birds and give performances. Through the center's scientific research and fundraising efforts endangered species are protected and through the efforts of archivists ancient books on falconry are preserved and studied.

A turkey vulture at World Center for Bird's of Prey. Credit: World Center for Bird's of Prey

There are so many beautiful birds of prey nesting in tall trees, on top of power poles, and on the roofs of tall buildings, that it is hard to choose a favorite! Eagles and Vultures, Osprey, the different kinds of Raptors – Harriers, Accipters, and Buteos – and Falcons are throng the air and delight the eye. Swooping over Chinden, diving into the reservoir, or circling high above a freshly harvested field they are easy to spot though sometimes hard to identify. This PDF from Idaho.gov may help.

Cooper’s Hawks can be found throughout the U.S., much like Bald Eagles. They are much smaller, however, and much harder to spot, due to their soft gray-brown coloring and secretive ways. They are only about a pound in weight (with females, as is usual for birds of prey, weighing about 25-40% more than males). They are noisy, uttering loud “kee-kee-kee” calls, especially during the dawn chorus, and making many and varied vocalizations when interacting with one another.

Cooper's Hawk. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Like Boiseans, Cooper’s Hawks enjoy foothills and trees. And also like Boiseans, the Cooper’s Hawk population has grown considerably since the 70s, numbering around 800,000 today. They are often mistaken for other small-sized “true hawks” like the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, making them the perfect friend to everyone who has had to clarify they are not from Iowa.

The Rufous Hummingbird

My final candidate is a bit of a departure from the more majestic and clever birds I’ve been describing. The Rufous Hummingbird is delicate, tiny, and energetic but also quite ferocious for its small size. Approximately the same weight as a ping pong ball, you almost never see a Rufous perching anywhere for more than a second or two. Their nests are tiny and hidden away from prying eyes by clever camouflage and, of course, hummingbirds do not prey on mammals or birds or fish.

A male Rufous Hummingbird. Credit: Bryan Hanson

Still, the tiny little Rufous would make a wonderful bird of Boise. Incredibly territorial, the Rufous will chase all other hummingbirds away from your feeder if you have one out. If you want other hummingbirds to come drink nectar, you must put out several feeders so that the Rufous can’t guard them all. An apt analogy for grumpy “OG” Idahoans, complaining about people from other states enjoying the wonders here!

If you put out a little nectar the Hummingbirds will show up. A feeling I think we all can appreciate. A new brewery or new coffeehouse is to the average Boisean what a new feeder is to hummingbirds. And what could be better than their fluttering, flashing, darting elegance around your porch or along the edge of the patio, lighting up a summer evening like jewels?

A female Rufous Hummingbird. Credit: Bryan Hanson.

Like the Cooper’s Hawk and its Sharp-Shinned cousin, the Rufous is also easily mistaken for the much more common (but Eastern) Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. And in the winter, they high-tail it for the warm sun of Mexico, something I’ve been longing for since the sky turned gray in January!

A hawk in flight. Credit: Raghunandan Boggarapu @nature_features_idaho

Perhaps just learning to identify some of these birds will be as good as actually naming one of them our City Bird. Birds are surprisingly numerous around the city and their variety and character is part of the uniquely rich environment of Boise. A moderately sized city, we have a rich natural environment surrounding and interweaving with the urban space. The call of birds should be a frequent reminder of our need to protect, preserve, and learn from that relationship.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Amanda Patchin

Today's story was written by Amanda Patchin. A handful of photos were taken right here in Boise by Raghunandan Boggarapu. You can see more of his local wildlife photos on Instagram at @nature_features_idaho.

Love this newsletter? I'm so glad! You can keep it going by supporting it here.