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Imperiled Bird Gets Emergency Protection

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Tricolored blackbird | Photo: Teddy Llovet/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A songbird that was once considered the most common bird in California was granted emergency protection Wednesday under the California Endangered Species Act.

The tricolored blackbird, Agelaius tricolor, a gregarious bird whose numbers have dropped by 44 percent since 2011, will enjoy the protections of the state's endangered species law for 180 days, which will give the California Department of Fish and Wildlife time to decide whether to permanently list the imperiled bird.

The emergency protection was granted Wednesday by the California Fish and Game Commission at its meeting in Van Nuys. A count of the birds this year found just 145,000 tricolored blackbirds hanging on in California, down from 259,000 in 2011, and untold millions a century ago.

"This species has been in a dangerous decline for years, so this is a very important step to protect tricolored blackbirds and their nesting colonies," said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, which had petitioned the commission to protect the blackbird. "Tricolors are particularly vulnerable to human impacts, because a small number of breeding colonies can contain most of the entire population. These new protections and limits on killing of tricolors are vital tools to try to help recover the population."

"The Fish and Game Commission made the right decision today," said Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California. "While we are pleased that this struggling species is getting the protections it needs, we understand that this is just the beginning of its path to recovery."

The emergency protection will likely have a marked impact on agricultural practices in California's Central Valley. Deprived of the thick riparian habitat they once called home, tricolored blackbirds now establish huge temporary breeding colonies in the grain fields that replaced those wetlands, and that means that an ill-timed harvest or other farm practices can threaten tens of thousands of blackbirds in one fell swoop.

But for the next 180 days at least, such practices will be severely curtailed.

Bird advocates say they want to work with ag interests to come up with ways to protect the blackbirds. "We are committed to working closely with our partners at government agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as agricultural groups like Western United Dairymen, to save this iconic species from extinction," said Audubon California's McCormack.

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