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Feds Want More Public Comment On Protecting Rare Bird

Yellow-billed cuckoo | Photo: Seabamirum | Creative Commons License

A striking bird that's been waiting more than 15 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide whether to list it under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) just got handed another minor delay. USFWS has announced that it's reopening public comment on its October 2013 proposal to list western populations of the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccycus americanus) as Threatened under the ESA.

It's a minor delay because the comment period has only been reopened for 15 days. It's the second time the comment period on listing the cuckoo has been extended, and the agency says the second extension is in response to public demand.

Under the proposal, Threatened status would be bestowed on yellow-billed cuckoos west of the Rocky Mountains, the so-called "Western U.S. Distinct Population Segment (DPS)" of the species. Once widespread along western rivers, the bird has declined dramatically in western states as riverside woodlands have been destroyed -- especially in California.

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In California, the birds' habitat has been aggressively destroyed through conversion to agriculture, channelization and flood control projects, and other human activities. Nowadays you mainly see yellow-billed cuckoos in places where streamside cottonwood and willow forests remain: some of the wildlife refuges along the Sacramento River, for instance, or in the vicinity of the Audubon Society's Kern River Preserve near Lake Isabella, where crews have worked to restore cottonwood-willow woodlands for the cuckoo's benefit.

Though the eastern cuckoos have seen their habitat similarly disrupted, their numbers have not declined nearly as much.

Unusually for songbirds, the yellow-billed cuckoo can eat spiny caterpillars such as the tent caterpillar, which many other birds avoid. The visually arresting birds have white underparts beneath gray-dun backs, with a flashy white-spotted tail at one end and the aforementioned yellow bill at the other.

Though yellow-billeds do share their family trait of nest parasitism, laying eggs in other birds' nests and leaving their young for those involuntary foster parents to rear, they don't do so all the time. Generally arriving at what's left of their California breeding grounds in June, western yellow-billeds in the Golden State usually seem to rear their own young in monogamous pairs, sometimes with the assistance of a non-breeding "helper" male.

The October proposal to list the cuckoo as Threatened came after many years of advocacy by wildlife protection groups. A broad range of groups including Audubon, the Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned USFWS in the late 1980s to list the cuckoo as Endangered in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Nevada. USFWS denied that petition in 1988 based on taxonomic and procedural issues. In 2001, USFWS issued the dreaded "warranted but precluded" finding on a 1998 petition to list the cuckoo filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and 22 other groups. "Warranted but precluded" meant that the agency agreed the bird deserved listing but it didn't have the resources to do so. In essence, other species took priority over the cuckoo in the USFWS's ESA triage process.

Those "warranted but precluded" findings piled up for a lot of other species, while even more languished without findings, leading to a 2011 agreement between CBD and USFWS in which the agency agreed to actually reach decisions on more than 750 candidate species nationwide. The October listing proposal for the cuckoo comes as part of that agreement.

"The petition to protect yellow-billed cuckoos was the first I ever worked on, back in 1998," said CBD's Noah Greenwald in October. "I had no idea then that getting protection for this severely imperiled songbird would take 15 years, but I'm glad it finally has a great chance of recovering."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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