Birds of a Feather

Illustration of a Robin bird
Thomas Schultz '09

Brandy Humphreys always had an appreciation for things wild. It was a trip to Costa Rica for her senior project, however, that culminated in a life-changing experience for the 1998 graduate of Pacific University. 

“I had already planned to do my independent project on lizards, but once we got there and I saw the amazing diversity and abundance of birds, I scratched the lizard project and designed a bird project,” she explained. Back on the Forest Grove campus, she noticed the acorn woodpeckers the campus is famous for. The northern-most colony of the birds resides in the Oregon white oaks at Pacific. “Once I caught the birding bug, I birded everywhere. Fernhill Wetland south of town was a big spot for me, as was Pacific’s arboretum in the Tillamook Forest,” said Humphreys.

Many students became aware of the University’s birds thanks to walks with Phil Creighton, just-retired president of the University.

  “Students would come and go across campus,” he noted. They are unaware of the scream of a red-tailed hawk as it flies overhead or of the buzz of a humming bird as it flies to a flower. One of Creighton’s great joys was introducing people to the wildlife around them. He remembered walking around campus with a group of students, pointing out a colorful western tanager, a white-breasted nuthatch and the acorn woodpeckers, among others. “Where did all these birds come from?” a student asked. The students often start by tracking the gregarious woodpeckers with their distinctive black and white plumage and red cap.

The woodpeckers usually form colonies of about 16 birds. They collect acorns and store them in holes they’ve drilled in the bark of trees, called granaries. These granaries can be found in oak trees or the softer fir trees. Biology Professor Pam Lopez’s students are mapping the granary locations, a useful field exercise and a help to the buildings and grounds staff, who know to leave the granaries alone. 

John Hayes, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also has an interest in the woodpeckers and other birds. “As the University adopts sustainability throughout its operations and curriculum, we should give more thought to how to preserve this bird population,” he noted. 

Students and teachers—and presidents—are not the only ones who appreciate the birds found on the campus and the surrounding area. James Davis, a naturalist with the Metro regional government, lists Pacific as one his favorite spots to watch birds in western Washington County. 

“The oaks are great for acorn woodpeckers and the white-breasted nuthatch. I’ve seen chipping sparrows a handful of times on this side of the cascades, and almost all of them were this end of Washington County,” he said. When he’s doing what birders call a big day count, counting as many species as he can in a 24-hour period, he’ll also be sure he’ll get to check off at Pacific’s barn owls. 

Harold Roark, director of Facilities and Safety Management, and his staff are familiar with the pair of barn owls, nesting in the fascia of Carnegie Hall for years. “I’ve had one of the adults sweep over me at night,” he said. Roark would like to patch the hole in the fascia eventually. Toward that end, a nesting box for the owls was put up a few years ago. There’s evidence the birds use it for a perch, but so far not for nesting. Roark’s staff regularly cleans up owl pellets—the regurgitated remains of the birds’ meal—under the nest box as well as under the hole in Carnegie. 

Of course, the Forest Grove campus is connected to a much larger ecosystem with year around bird activity. Winter brings a variety of waterfowl to the area, to flooded fields and to Fernhill Wetland, in the southeast section of town just off Highway 47. A partial list of wintering ducks includes canvasbacks, American wigeons, green-winged teal, ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, Canada geese, and both tundra and trumpeter swans. There are occasional sightings of rare birds that cause the Fernhill parking lot to fill up with birders within driving distance. One doesn’t see the sandhill cranes or curlews that used to nest here. But there was a time they were common.

“As the University adopts sustainability throughout its operations and curriculum, we should give more thought to how to preserve this bird population.”
– John Hayes, Dean of Colleges of Arts and Sciences

A bird’s eye view of Forest Grove in the early 1840s, just before Pacific’s founders arrived, would have shown stands of oak on hills like the one the University is built on. The area south of the town was wetland prairie, flooding in the winter, drying out in summer and providing grazing for deer and elk. Then as now, Gales Creek flowed down from the Coast Range, through Forest Grove and into the Tualatin River as it makes its meandering journey from the hills just a few miles south and west of Forest Grove to the Willamette River near Oregon City. The local Native Americans, the Kalapuya tribe, burned the prairies each fall, said Jim Labbe, urban conservationist at Portland Audubon. The Oregon white oaks survived the burns, he said.

Pacific Professor Rich Van Buskirk, who teaches Restoration Ecology, adds that the grasses growing up after the burns provided food for deer and elk, which, in turn, provided food for Kalapuyan hunters. “There’s evidence burning increased the amount of root food, berries and acorns, and even improved the grasses used to make baskets,” he said. “Once the first white settlers came to the area in 1845, they saw burning as a bad thing and over time stopped them. Douglas fir came down from the coast range and began shading out the oaks.”

The settlers continued to change the landscape, Buskirk pointed out, draining marshes and clearing trees for farmland and what today are nurseries, vineyards and Christmas tree farms.
For instance, the area just outside of Gaston was once Wapato Lake, a place where the Kalapuya harvested wapato, also called Indian potato, and camas, a kind of bland onion formed into cakes and used for food and trade. Camas was once so abundant that David Douglas, an early European explorer and botanist, described a sea of blue camas blossoms covering much of the Willamette Valley. 

Today, the land continues to change. Many of the old white oaks on campus suffer from root rot, possibly from the summer watering of the lawns on campus. With the woodpeckers in mind, non-native red oaks are being planted now. They tolerate the water better, says Van Buskirk, and though some protest that red oak is not native, Van Buskirk pointed out the land is already managed, and was even when the tribes conducted their burns. 

Meanwhile, Tom Beck, former dean of Arts & Sciences and current faculty member, and other interested people are planning an education center at Fernhill for use by community residents to enhance understanding of the natural history of the northern edge of the Willamette Valley. The sandhill cranes and curlews may not nest in the Tualatin Valley again. But thanks to Pacific’s community, the northern-most colony of acorn woodpeckers will remain in Forest Grove.

And 40 miles south and west, as the crow flies, Brandy Humphreys is helping the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde manage what remains of their land. “My interest in birds, begun at Pacific, led to the job I have today.

Birds of a Feather

Hummingbird | Anna’s hummingbird (Calypte anna) is found year round in western Oregon. The male’s head is a deep red/pink that extends down the neck. The female often has dark pink flecks on the neck. The back is green on both birds. The bill is short compared to that of other humming birds. After a nest of Anna’s nestlings fledged, Pacific staff gave the nest to Dr. Creighton who numbers it among his most prized possessions. (4” long)

Nuthatch | Red-breasted nuthatches are common in the Northwest, but because of Pacific’s oak trees, white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) are also seen around the campus. Like other nuthatches, it is often seen climbing down the bark of trees, looking for insects. Its song is a distinctive, rapid nasal whistle, and is about 20 percent larger than the red-breasted nuthatch. (5 ¾” long)

Owl | The barn owl (Tyto alba) has a pale, heart-shaped face and rusty-brown back. It nests most often in barns, but sometimes in other buildings or trees. A pair has nested in the fascia of Pacific’s Carnegie Hall for years. A nest box has been placed nearby, and once it’s certain nesting is taking place in the box, the fascia of Carnegie Hall will be repaired. (16” long)

Robin | American robins (Turdus migratorius) can be found nesting over outdoor light fixtures or on building ledges or crooks of trees all around the campus. A member of the thrush family, it has a cheerful, melodious song. It is often seen on the lawn at Pacific pulling up worms, but also eats other insects and berries. It can be found here year round. (10" long)

Sparrow | Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerine) are found throughout much of the United States, but are seldom seen in western Washington County. A pair was seen on the Pacific campus a little over a year ago. The little brown birds with rusty caps and a white eye bar make chip notes, giving the small sparrow its name. (5 ½” long)

About the Artist

Thomas Schultz has been a full-time bird artist and illustrator for over 30 years. It may be said that Schultz lives in a world dominated by birds, for if he isn’t painting them, he is probably watching, identifying, counting or reading about them. Among his many credits are “Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” 3rd, 4th and 5th editions, published by National Geographic; National Geographic’s “Complete Birds of North America,” and their new Eastern and Western bird field guides; “Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide,” published in 2005 by the Smithsonian Institution. He was also one of two illustrators who did the paintings for the Peterson Series field guide to the “Warblers of North America,” published in 1997. He lives in Green Lake, Wis. with his wife Wendy and two sons.


This story first appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.

Oct. 31, 2009