Audubon Goes Into Emergency Mode to Save Bird Species Today

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Male tricolored blackbird on a tule stem | Photo: Alan Vernon/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As much as a sixth of the total population of an emblematic California bird species faces harm this week, and a prestigious group has gone into emergency mode to prevent a tragedy.

According to Audubon California, between 25,000 and 50,000 tricolored blackbirds are currently nesting in a field in Madera County that is slated for harvest as early as today, and the group is feverishly working with the farm owner to delay that harvest until the baby blackbirds have left their nests.

Fewer than 300,000 tricolored blackbirds remain in the world, which means losing 50,000 could be a serious blow to the species. But though such stories often play out in conflict between wildlife advocates and landowners, this one has a twist: the farmer's also looking for a way out that doesn't hurt the birds.

Update: At Grist today, Jess Zimmerman quotes the National Audubon Society as estimating that fewer than 250,000 tricolored blackbirds remain, making this week's potential loss of up to 50,000 birds all the more dire. Audubon California is affiliated with but distinct from the National Audubon Society.

According to Audubon California, the farmer -- whom the group doesn't identify publicly -- would rather not harvest the wheat field and devastate the nesting tricolored blackbirds, but needs to harvest in order to feed his dairy cattle. The price of feed has spiked lately, due to the state's ongoing severe drought among other factors, and the group says the farmer just can't afford to delay cutting his wheat unless he gets help from outside sources.

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That's why Audubon California is taking the unusual step of turning to crowdfunding: the group is trying to raise $40,000 in the next few hours, with the proceeds going to feed the farmer's livestock through the nesting season.

The tricolored blackbird, Agelaius tricolor, is a close relative of the much more common red-winged blackbird, which it resembles closely aside from a yellow band on its wings next to the red stripe that marks its cousin.

The tricolored blackbird has been called "California's passenger pigeon." It's an extremely gregarious bird, nesting in colonies of up to 50,000 adults -- a habit that has caused the current predicament in Madera County. Once found in flocks huge enough that contemporary writers resorted to cliché to describe them, saying that the passage of the flocks "darkened the sky," tricolored blackbirds numbered in the millions in California's Central Valley in the 19th Century.

The advent of agriculture changed that. The tricolored blackbird population has declined by more than 80 percent since World War II. Habitat destruction and pesticides have played a role, but one of the biggest threats to the birds is pretty much what's playing out in Madera County right now: farming activity that harms the species' gigantic nesting colonies before babies are able to leave their nests.

Despite the startling decline in numbers and repeated attempts to get the bird listed as Endangered, the tricolored blackbird has been denied protection under both the state and federal Endangered Species Acts. California Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service do each include the species on their respective "species of concern" lists, and the agencies have also taken part in a Tricolored Blackbird Working Group, a cooperative effort of agencie, NGOs, and others working to rebuild the species'' populations and habitat.

Audubon California has recently worked as the "chair" of that Working Group, and its emergency campaign takes place in that context. If this campaign raises enough funds to save the Madera County colony, any additional proceeds will go to longer term solutions -- potentially including compensating other farmers for delaying harvests when necessary.

We'll keep you updated over the next couple of days as more information comes in.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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