German Sheperd at Seattle Park | Canva
by Caryn Bell-Schutzler, Seattle Audubon Member
With or without dogs, spotting an elusive bird can be challenging, even under the best of circumstances. But if you enjoy birding and want to take your dog along, it is possible.
When we adopted Jessie earlier this year, I was horrified when I saw her nab a junco mid-flight! This opened my eyes to the challenges that come along with being a dog owner while wanting to protect birds and Seattle’s diminishing habitat.
A bird dog ironically is not only a breed of dog—retrievers, spaniels, or pointers—but a verb, bird-dog, which means to watch or doggedly seek out someone or something. And as birders, that is what we do—with or without a dog.
And, since birding can be done virtually anywhere, here are a few ideas of the best places to go in our city to enjoy our dogs, have lower impact to wildlife, and also maybe spot that migrating warbler.
Sharing recreational space and protecting wildlife habitat
Junco chicks in their ground nest | Canva
Dogs enjoying an established city park | Canva
With the pandemic continuing its positive downward turn (YAY!), our parks remain prime places for outdoor activities—biking, hiking, running, exercising dogs, and of course, birding. Unfortunately, increased activity impacts the environment and the behavior of birds and other wildlife.
When pets (or people) wander off trail, not only does a fragile ecosystem suffer but so too the wildlife within it. Towhees, juncos, Song Sparrows, and other ground nesters—their nests located in underbrush—are particularly vulnerable to habitat disruption from dogs in public parks. Therefore, in order to accommodate the multitude of activities in our parks, established rules remain necessary to preserve the land for all. Park trails are designed and maintained for the one primary reason — habitat preservation.
Walking dogs in parks with more sensitive habitats such as Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA), Lincoln, Seward, and Discovery Parks can have a greater impact on birds. Toward that end, Seattle Audubon’s Urban Conservation Manager, Josh Morris, recommends walking our dogs in more developed parks, or heading to one of the many designated off-leash areas.
Ultimately though, perhaps the best option of all just might be to walk our dogs right in our own neighborhoods where paved streets and sidewalks are public and not considered sensitive per se. Though they may not have the forested, duff-laden trails we prefer, with a scarcity of natural habitat in cities, walking our dogs closer to home helps alleviate undue stress to sensitive park habitat.
Best parks for birding with your dog
If you still want to head to a park, leash your worries! Paw through the following link to find one that suits you and your best dog pal. It includes off-leash areas for pooches and their people, some adjacent to or within the park where dogs can run free and socialize with other furry friends.
Off-leash parks offer a place for people wanting to have a lower impact on birds and habitat while exercising their dog. Fortunately, these dog parks, especially near water, can still be quite birdy. Magnuson Park, in North Seattle on Lake Washington, has an 8.6 acre off-leash area with a swimming section (where lost tennis balls abound) where kingfishers chitter from a branch near the lake’s edge and goldeneyes often swim by.
Common Goldeneye | Canva
Magnuson Park Off Leash Area | do206 A Dog’s Guides to Seattle
Another off-leash area, dubbed “Doggy Disneyland,” in Marymoor Park, an eastside park on Lake Sammamish, has forty acres of play area. After a romp, you could take a leisurely walk with your now calm canine pal along some of the well-treed trails to spot a few birds.
Marymoor Park off-leash area, Redmond, WA | Rover.com
Great Blue Heron | Susan Hodgson | Audubon Photography Awards
Leashes aren’t just for the birds…
Keeping your dog on a leash is not only for the protection of wildlife, but also for the dog’s safety. Running loose, a dog could come upon a nest, or a tiny fledgling and injure or kill it.
If a loose dog finds a dead bird or animal, ingesting carrion in varying stages of decay, whether from natural causes or disease, it could make the dog extremely ill. Or, if it scarfs up a dead rodent or owl pellet possibly containing a rodenticide it could poison your pet. Bait stations or traps for rodent control at some homes, businesses, or public parks (another important issue worth further research), can end up introducing these poisons into the food chain, which may lead to a harmful, tragic outcome—for any living thing.
As a birder with a dog you can also consider using a different type of leash. Several manufacturers make hands-free leash options which loop over your shoulder. Commonly purchased by joggers, they work great for birders too. While allowing you to keep your dog on leash and safe, they also free up your hands for your binoculars and field guide.
A backyard for birds and dogs
When I realized dogs too can have an instinctual draw to chase birds, I wanted to find a way to protect the birds while Jessie was in our own quarter acre backyard mini park. We have cordoned off a few areas using low fencing creating enclosed areas (“wings”) around feeders and baths or possible nesting sites for birds to enter, while helping keep Jessie at bay. Towhees and juncos can scurry through the wire at ground level into dense plantings and branchy thickets to feed under cover or use as staging to the nearby trees. When I started seeing fledgling Bewick’s Wrens and chickadees in our garden, I’ve been leashing Jessie for her morning and evening constitutions.
Though I bird a little less doggedly these days, I am committed to being a responsible dog owner when taking Jessie anywhere. As thoughtful birders or bird-doggers—we all must remain aware of others, respecting their own unique outdoor activities—with our binoculars and our leashes always both at the ready.
Jessie, in her Sarcococca humilis “nest”
Wherever you choose to exercise your dog, be sure Fido or Fifi has their license and rabies tags, and of course don’t forget those poop bags!
Whether we bird solo or in a group, our goal to preserve and protect park habitat and wildlife must be a priority. And when we bird mindfully with our dogs, maybe we can just have our “suet” cake and eat it too.
City of Seattle Leash Laws
In Seattle, it is the law that dogs should always be on a leash within city limits of Seattle unless in specifically designated off-leash areas.
And, as we approach the dog days of summer, remember, dogs aren’t allowed on any public saltwater beaches in Seattle, on or off leash. This law helps protect the fragile ecosystem along our shorelines which includes habitat for our marine mammals and shorebirds.
For specific leash law and park information visit: Seattle.gov or the website of your local municipality.