A brown and white spotted owl, with dark eyes and a small yellow beak, and with wings spread.
Northern Spotted Owl

NPS/Emily Brouwer Photo


The park is home to a number of bird species. Some of these birds are year-round residents but most occur in the park during specific seasons.

The distribution of birds in the park varies between the life zones of the park, which is highly dependent on the elevation. The lowest areas of the park (below 3,500 feet/1,066 meters) are characterized by mature forests of Douglas-fir, western red cedar, grand fir, and western hemlock. This forested zone provides suitable habitat for northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) and marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus marmoratus). Many other birds occur in this zone which are seasonal visitors or year-around residents.

The next zone of the park is from 3,500 to 5,000 feet (1,066-1,524 meters) and has mixed forests of western white pine, western hemlock, and Pacific silver fir. Weather, food sources, migration, and breeding season affects the timing and species of birds found in this zone.

The subalpine elevation zone extends from 5,000 to 6,500 feet (1,524-1,981 meters) and is where Paradise and Sunrise are located. This zone transitions away from forested terrain into subalpine meadows. Clumps of mixed forest remain among the meadows, made up of primarily subalpine fir, mountain hemlock, Alaska yellow cedar, and white bark pine. There are many birds found here, especially in the summer when the meadows are lush with wildflowers, seeds, and insects.

Over 80 square miles of Mount Rainier National Park has an elevation above 6,500 feet (1,981 meters). This final alpine zone is characterized by snowfields, glaciers, and bare rock outcrops. However, many specialized plant communities survive in these exposed areas. Wind also disperses insects and spiders onto snowfields and glaciers, providing food for numerous birds which visit the snowfield.


Bird Guide

Learn more about common bird species found in Mount Rainier National Park.

A list of common species can also be found in the Mount Rainier Bird Checklist. Photos from the Bird Guide are also available in the Birds of Mount Rainier Photo Album.

Willow Flycatcher perched on a branch.
Willow flycatcher, listed as sensitive, is a rare bird that can occasionally be found in the park.

Crow Vecchio Photo

Unusual Birds

The northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) is listed on the US Fish & Wildlife Service list of threatened and endangered species, and is the only endangered bird species that permanently inhabits the park. Marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus marmoratus) have been observed inside and outside the park and nest in the park. Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) are also listed species, but while they have been sighted in the park, there is no record of either species nesting in the park. They are believed to pass through the park on a migratory basis.

There several bird species found in the park which are listed as sensitive, including the northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus), and willow flycatcher (Emphidonax traillii brewsteri).

There are several birds inhabiting the park which are on the Washington Department of Wildlife, Non-game Program's "List of Species of Special Interest in the State of Washington". The federal and state lists need to be periodically reviewed, and all species occurring in Mount Rainier evaluated and possibly monitored. Reported declines of many resident-migrant birds have stimulated interest in avian population trends across North America. Suggested mechanisms driving these declines include habitat loss (Rappole and McDonald 1994; Sharp 1996; Wilcove et al. 1998), habitat fragmentation (DeSante and George 1994), habitat succession (Sharp 1996), increased nest predation (Morse and Robinson 1999) and nest parasitism, and increased mortality during migration.


Bird Research

  • Songbirds: Indicators of Mercury in Natural Park Ecosystems by E. Adams, A.K. Jackson, & D.C. Evers - Biodiversity Research Institute. This study aims to assess the mercury levels in a variety of insect-eating songbirds throughout three western national parks, and to understand how songbirds can be used as indicators of the health of these ecosystems. Learn more about the Biodiversity Research Institure Songbird Program.
  • Barred owls reduce occupancy and breeding propensity of northern spotted owl in a Washington old-growth forest by A.O. Mangan, T. Chestnut, J.C. Vogeler, I.K. Breckheimer, W.M King, K.E. Bagnall, & K.M. Dugger - The Condor, August 8, 2019. When the northern spotted owl was protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, the primary threat to the species was the loss of the old-growth forest it depends on. However, research published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that the northern spotted owl population in Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park has declined sharply in the past two decades despite the long-term preservation of habitat within the park. The culprit? The spread of barred owls, a closely related, competing species that has moved into spotted owls’ range from the east.
  • Observations of three harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus) nests in the southern Washington Cascade Range by R. Morris, R. Gibbs, & T. Chestnut, Poster Presentation. We conducted opportunistic nest surveys at Mount Rainier National Park from 2001 to 2018 and report on the nest site descriptions of three harlequin duck nests detected in 2005 (n=2) and 2018 (n=1). Prior to this, only one harlequin duck nest was reported from Mount Rainier National Park in 1920.


Source: Data Store Collection 9277. To search for additional information, visit the Data Store.


Bird Research Articles

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    See an Owl? Let us Know!

    The wildlife crew would love to hear about your owl encounters. Any information you can provide is extremely valuable to us; especially location, date, description of what you saw or heard, and a picture or recording if possible. Below are some photos and tips to help distinguish spotted owls and barred owls in the field. Both species are quite large, measuring 17-20" tall with 40-42" wingspans. In flight they can look remarkably similar, but perched individuals show some key differences. So what if you hear an owl hooting? There's a lot of variation in owl calls and spotted/barred owls can sound alike. Even if you can't see the bird, using a cell phone to record video can result in good enough audio for identification.

    Submit your reports to our online database, which includes a feature to upload media. Thanks for your help!

    Learn more about Spotted Owl monitoring at Mount Rainier National Park.
    A Spotted Owl (left) compared with a Barred Owl (right) from the front.
    A Spotted Owl (left) compared with a Barred Owl (right) viewed from the front.

    NPS Photo

    Spotted Owl vs Barred Owl from the Front:
    Spotted owls are a chocolate brown color with numerous white spots, while barred owls appear more pale with dark vertical streaking on the belly. If the body is obstructed from view, take a look at the face. Spotted owls have mostly brown feathers on the facial disk (minus the "eyebrows" and "mustache") while barred owl faces appear more gray overall, even in dim forest light.
    A Spotted Owl (left) compared with a Barred Owl (right) from the back.
    A Spotted Owl (left) compared with a Barred Owl (right) from the back.

    NPS Photo

    Spotted Owl vs Barred Owl from the Back:
    White speckles on spotted owls are much less obvious compared to distinct white horizontal markings on the backs of barred owls.

    Last updated: January 25, 2024

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