My Favorites: Bird Watching


Illustra­tion by
Jaylene Arnold

Stacy Hill

Stacy Hill, SOC/BA ’12, CAS/MS ’18, grew up in Santa Barbara, California, with a menagerie of animals that included dogs, rabbits, small reptiles, and rats. But she flocked to the family’s six birds: a pair of Pacific parrotlets, a lovebird, two cockatiels, and a budgerigar.

“I remember feeding birds in the backyard when I was in elementary school,” says the Smithsonian National Zoological Park birdkeeper, who became “obsessed” with trying to identify them. “Ornithology stayed in the back of my mind and it became where I wanted to end up.”

Hill expected her career with animals would be as a writer or educator, but a stint in 2018 as a researcher at the Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo while working on her master’s in environmental science changed her trajectory. Today she studies and trains passerines—one of nearly 100 species at the zoo’s birdhouse, which is scheduled to reopen in 2023 after extensive renovations.

According to a 2019 report by Science, North American bird populations, from iconic songsters like meadowlarks to backyard regulars like sparrows, have declined by 29 percent—or almost three billion birds—since 1970 due to climate change, habitat loss, and cats.

That’s why Hill is proud as a peacock of the husbandry work the zoo has conducted with birds like the red knot. Breeding healthy species helps birdkeepers like Hill, who has worked at the zoo since 2017, develop a playbook detailing best practices for the Species Survival Plan in case one becomes endangered.

“We’re trying to get ahead of what might be a precipitous decline of different species,” she says. “We want to have the plan ready for reintroduction, [because] once an animal is gone, it’s gone.”

Illustrated American dipper, American kestrel, Gray catbird, Black-throated blue warbler, Northern flicker, Yellow-breasted chat, White-throated sparrow, wood thrush, hoatzin, and red siskin, all illustrated

This Eagle’s job is for the birds. Meet 10 of Hill’s favorite fine-feathered friends:

American dipper: I was captivated when I saw this bird for the first time in Alaska because it walks around the stream bed like it’s [on] land. It also dives headlong into the water for food, which looks completely backwards from how it should.

American kestrel: This species of raptor—the smallest in North America—is known as a “murder bird” because it can take down equally sized prey. I interacted with one for the first time at a local rehab center in California.

Gray catbird: This bird—which zoogoers can see in DC—has an eponymous call that sounds like a cat meowing. I have a pair that nest near my house every year.

Black-throated blue warbler: This was the first warbler species that I [assisted] with the breeding process. They successfully nested, and although they didn’t rear chicks, it was a big step for the zoo.

Northern flicker: The first feathers I found as a kid were a poof from this flicker. It’s a woodpecker, but it forages for food on the ground.

Yellow-breasted chat: The clown of birds, the male waves the yellow patch on his neck back and forth at the female while he sings and performs his courtship dance.

White-throated sparrow: While this is a common bird in the DC area, the species has two distinct color morphs: tan and white. It only mates with opposite color morphs, so it’s as if there are four distinct sexes.

Wood thrush: This is one of the birds I get to work with at the zoo; its voice box branches and each branch produces its own tone, so it can harmonize with itself.

Hoatzin: This primordial looking bird has claws when it’s young, so it climbs trees before it can fly. It looks just like a bat.

Red siskin: I did my thesis on this species; it is responsible for pink and red canaries and is considered one of the first genetically engineered animals. It is also a case study on the pet trade and conservation efforts.