The geography of the Northwest brings a diversity of wildlife — and related headaches. Birds get in the path of jetliners. Crows frequently knock out power. And rats occasionally crawl up toilets.
With more than 400 parks, nearly 86 miles of shoreline and about 130,000 trees, Seattle hosts wildlife galore.
Transient deer sneak around Seattle’s greenbelts. Seven pairs of peregrine falcons have claimed perches in area trees. Coyotes patrol parks by cover of night.
Bird-watchers who range from Seattle’s shoreline through the suburbs to the Cascade foothills in a day “can rack up 80 species — easy,” said John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington.
“People are really surprised by the diversity of wildlife. We have everything from orcas being sighted in West Seattle to bald eagles nesting,” said Kelly Brenner, a writer who is working on a book about Seattle’s urban wildlife. “There’s a lot of hidden wildlife that people don’t recognize here.”
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Thank our geography, Brenner said.
“We have the second largest lake in Washington … and we’re wedged in on the other side by saltwater, and then we have the forests … ”
But a wealth of biodiversity comes with headaches, too. Jetliners smash into birds. Crows knock out power with regularity. Rats occasionally crawl up toilets. Invasive troublemakers like the nutria flourish.
Keeping critters in check sometimes takes special effort. As Seattleites enjoy our region’s majestic megafauna, government agencies play whack-a-mole with surprising pest problems.
Let’s get this out of the way: Rats are everywhere in Seattle. It’s one of the rattiest places in the U.S.
“Our sewers are full of rats,” said Deb Heiden, of Seattle Public Utilities.
Occasionally, rats crawl up pipes into the bowls of toilets. King County Public Health receives about 40 such complaints per year. (“Rat in toilet woke me up at 7:30 a.m. I lifted the rat out with BBQ tongs into a bag, and killed it by bludgeoning,” one complainant reported.)
The economic boom doesn’t hurt them: More people. More garbage. More food.
“We’ve been busy,” said Frank Carter, general manager of Sound Pest Management. “Especially when they put the high-rises in Ballard and Seattle. They (construction crews) dig 45- to 50-feet foundations. That’s all a plus for us. It’s bringing them (rats) to the surface, out of their natural habitat.”
Leave it to beavers
Although the city does pay to control rats, the world’s most-maligned rodents make far less dramatic an environmental impact in parks and wetland areas than do beavers, which cause SPU’s Heiden the most grief.
Seemingly as effective as chain saws, the furry creatures’ forest construction work in their quest to build ponds often is at odds with the human desire to avoid flooding.
To protect SPU’s infrastructure, Heiden said crews will dismantle the top layers of dams that get too high or install beaver deceivers, small, fence-protected pipes that slowly (and quietly) drain water from a beaver pond. Quiet is key — the sound of rushing water spurs more construction.
Beavers caused flooding in Magnuson Park last year and chomped through so many trees at Golden Gardens some said it looked like a war zone.
Seattle Parks crews rerouted and raised the path and had to use a pond-leveling pipe to drain the beaver pond. But Barb DeCaro, a senior environmental analyst, said they plan to mostly tolerate the beavers.
“That’s the way a beaver habitat works,” DeCaro said, of the partial clear-cut at Golden Gardens. “In summer, you’ll see more waterfowl.”
More birds might be good for parks, but they can cause headaches for wildlife biologists at Seattle City Light and Sea-Tac Airport, which are constantly defending against aerial incursions.
Last year, the feathered fliers were electrocuted dozens of times, causing 162 power outages for Seattle City Light. Inquisitive crows were responsible for 124 of those, but two bald eagles died, too.
“Each outage, a crew has to go out and respond and spend anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours finding an outage and resetting equipment. Just the crew time alone can add up a bit,” said Ron Tressler, a wildlife biologist with Seattle City Light. “It’s been a few years since we’ve attempted to add up the dollars because it’s just part of doing business.”
Crews retrofit utility poles with bird guards and insulate transformers, but it’s a slow process. Tressler estimates half of the utility’s roughly 47,000 transformer poles have been retrofitted or were newly built with bird protection.
Meanwhile, in the south end of the terminal at Sea-Tac, it’s hard not to notice the lively chirp of sparrows spilling their song to passengers below.
“We’ve tried to trap these things,” said Steve Osmek, one of the airport’s two wildlife biologists. “You have to use muffins. They want the good stuff.”
It seems they’re there to stay. Blame the freshwater fountain on the arrivals level, or the easy fast food.
So, yes, Sea-Tac has bird problems. But things are much better than in the 1970s, when more than 100,000 starlings fluttered around airport runways.
Back then, Osmek said, Sea-Tac workers set charges in trees to blow out the birds’ roosts. Now, protecting planes is a high-tech operation.
The airport recently installed a third radar system to track birds along the 2-mile-long airfield. When radar spots persistent bird activity, crews drive out to shoo birds away with noisemakers, shotgun-fired pyrotechnics, sirens or flares.
Osmek said he traps 1,000 to 2,000 pigeons and starlings a year. They are euthanized and sent to museums or universities.
He also captures raptors, such as bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and cooper’s Hawks with a wooden trap system baited with a live pigeon that snaps above them when a raptor touches a hinge. Captured raptors get tagged and then fly coach up to Burlington About 5 percent return to the airfield.
Why all the trouble?
Jetliners strike birds about 60 times a year at Sea-Tac, Osmek said, in the course of more than 300,000 takeoffs and landings. Although it’s rare, birds can damage planes (though passenger planes are equipped to manage bird strikes of at least 4 pounds) and force landings — or worse. At Sea-Tac, feathered fliers caused between $4 million and $5 million in damage last year.
The birds fare worse. (Note: Queasy readers might want to skip the next two paragraphs).
When struck, birds’ insides are usually punched out of their bodies opposite of where the plane hit them.
“The skin can’t keep up,” explained Osmek.
Some species require extra protection from planes and power lines.
A few years ago, osprey were trying to nest on a steel tower just east of the Duwamish River, Tressler said.
“It was at risk of knocking out power to Boeing’s wind tunnel,” he said. Crews built a cover with rollers so the birds couldn’t sink their talons to perch or build a nest.
It cost about $20,000, Tressler said, to keep the migrating birds off the tower.
The utility has built six custom platforms to provide safe nesting sites for osprey.
“Every April, when the birds come back from South America, I’m holding my breath,” Tressler said, hoping the osprey will choose platforms rather than utility poles for their nests.
The same birds causing trouble at the airfield are the ones that make Seattle special to Chris Anderson, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Occasionally an eagle will fly over downtown,” he said. “You go elsewhere in the United States, people would drop their jaws to see an eagle in their downtown spaces.”
Peregrine falcons have adapted well to downtown.
“It’s a cliff to them on the side of the bridges, so to speak, or a large skyscraper downtown,” Anderson said.
But sprawl is pushing out red foxes and striped skunks, which could use more green territory to roam, Anderson said.
He’s worried about bats, too. White-nose syndrome, which has devastated bats across the country, was found in Washington this year. Anderson is collecting information to help stop its spread.
For starters, Anderson needs to know where bats are living. “If you like sitting on your porch in the evening without mosquitoes, let us know where the bats are,” he said.
Urbanization has also given nonnative animals a foothold, for better and worse.
A decade ago, for example, the population of abandoned pet rabbits (whose reproductive habits live up to the species’ reputation) became unwieldy and overtook Green Lake and Woodland Park. The parks department live-trapped them and sent some of them to a sanctuary.
Since then, an influx of coyotes has kept the bunnies in check, DeCaro believes.
Learn to embrace the quiet canines, Anderson said.
“We should be happy we have coyotes. They control a lot of our rat population,” he said. “Coyotes aren’t ever going away.”
Proof, perhaps, that even as gleaming skyscrapers are constructed downtown, Seattle will always remain a little wild.