On hot summer days, the yellow-billed cuckoo will call out loudly, often signaling a storm ahead.
Also known as the “rain crow” the songbird, which likes to spend warmer months in the U.S. and Mexico, is indeed threatened by a storm —this one human made.
Habitat degradation and loss has challenged the survival of this beloved slim, long-tailed bird that weighs just about two ounces. But instead of stepping up to protect the species after it was declared threatened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has failed to take final action to designate its critical habitat that is vital to its survival.
The western population of yellowbilled cuckoos were listed as threatened in 2014 and FWS’s failure to ensure its survival by protecting its ecosystem—delicate woodlands abutting waterways—is a violation of the Endangered Species Act, Friends of Animals said in a lawsuit filed with the Audubon Society of Greater Denver seeking injunctive relief.
“The government must be held accountable for its obligations under the Endangered Species Act,’’ said Wildlife Law Program Assistant Director Jennifer Best. “It must protect this songbird from rampant habitat destruction and extinction.”
Once common from Seattle to Arizona, the western cuckoos have disappeared completely from the Pacific Northwest, according to the National Park Service. Dams, livestock grazing and conversion of flood plains for agricultural use have encroached on their riparian environs. Development along rivers has destroyed as much as 90 percent of the birds’ habitat and loss of insect prey from pesticides; draught and climate change have also threatened their survival.
And though in 2014 FWS proposed to designate more than 546,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Wyoming and Utah as critical habitat for the western cuckoos, which it identified as a distinct population segment from eastern cuckoos for conservation purposes, it never took final action.
Now FWS is being pressured by developers, ranchers and mineral extraction industries, viewed favorably by the Trump administration, to withdraw the western cuckoos ESA threatened status, further imperiling its survival.
“State and private interests are trying to manage wildlife and public lands for private gain,’’ said Best. “If political wishes win out over the needs of the western yellow-billed cuckoo, then the states, ranchers and developers will continue to exploit riparian habitat desperately needed by the last remaining 500 breeding pairs. Such a decision would not only violate the ESA but may potentially cause the extinction of the beloved cuckoo.”
FoA was able to secure a victory in the case filed against FWS in that the agency must issue a new proposed critical habitat designation on Aug. 5, 2019, and final designation by Aug. 5, 2020. If the agency makes a decision delisting the cuckoo before then FoA will continue to pursue protections.
The ESA requires that in determining critical habitat, FWS must consider space for population growth and normal behavior of a species; food, water, light, minerals and nutritional needs; cover and shelter; sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring; as well as protection from disturbance.
FWS originally stated its main goals in listing critical habitat for the western yellow-billed cuckoo was to increase their population to a level where the species is not as vulnerable to threats and could withstand environmental fluctuations and crises, allow for the birds to maintain their current distribution and allow them to move between areas. Yellow-billed cuckoos feast on caterpillars and katydids in their woodsy neighborhood before flying south to Argentina, Columbia and Venezuela for the winter.
Yellow-billed cuckoos play an invaluable role in the ecosystem, FoA noted in its complaint. A thriving cuckoo species will provide healthier riparian lands, which in turn helps with flood control and water quality. Healthy wetlands provide vegetation, migration and breeding areas for a variety of migratory birds and wildlife.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
There are several steps you can take to help yellow-billed cuckoos:
• Plant native trees like cottonwoods and willows that support the birds’ insect prey on your property.
• Avoid using pesticides as many brands kill caterpillars that the cuckoos depend on for food.
• Keep cats inside.
This article originally appeared in FoA’s spring 2019 edition of Action Line.