Yellow-billed cuckoo may get endangered species status

Native bird has nearly been extirpated from the West

Yellow-billed cuckoos have nearly been extirpated from the western U.S. Photo courtesy Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory.
Yellow-billed cuckoos are only found in a few isolated locations in Colorado.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — The yellow-billed cuckoo, once common along streams throughout the West, may finally get some protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed Endangered Species Act protection  for the brids, following a 2011 agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity to speed protection decisions for 757 imperiled species nationwide.

The flashy bird, with a long tail and white markings on it wings, has long been listed as a species of concern by Colorado wildlife biologists, as their numbers have dropped drastically since the early 20th century. Click here to read a Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory report on yellow-billed cuckoos in Colorado.

The reason for that decline is simple. The birds, sometimes called rain crows for their habit of singing right before thunderstorms, thrive in large, healthy stands of riparian habitat, mainly nesting in big cottonwoods with healthy understory. But unbridled development of water, dams and diversions have fragmented habitat for the birds in Colorado and elsewhere.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos have been extirpated from British Colombia, Washington, Oregon, and reduced to a small fraction of their historic range in California.

In Colorado, west of the Rocky Mountains, yellow-billed cuckoos were found annually in Palisade, near Grand Junction. Cuckoos were regularly detected as recently as the mid-1980s along the Uncompahgre and Gunnison Rivers near Delta. However, during the first Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas (1987-1994), only three cuckoos were recorded on the western slope. Of these three atlas records, only one confirmed cuckoos breeding on the Yampa River in Routt County.

“The decline of the cuckoo across the West is a symbol of the tragic decline of our rivers,” said Noah Greenwald, the Center’s endangered species director. “With just a little more care, we can restore those rivers — not just for cuckoos and hundreds of other animals and plants, but for people too.”

“The petition to protect yellow-billed cuckoos was the first I ever worked on, back in 1998,” said Greenwald. “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.”

A striking bird with a long tail with flashy white markings, the cuckoo is one of the few species that can eat spiny caterpillars such as tent caterpillars. Under the settlement agreement with the Center, 117 species have been protected so far, and another 63 have been proposed for protection, including the cuckoo.


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