ALBUQUERQUE, NM – U.S. nature managers have neglected vast areas across several states as habitat critical for the survival of a rare songbird that migrates annually from Central and South America to breeding grounds in Mexico and the United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the final habitat name for the western yellow-billed cuckoo on Tuesday. It covers about 467 square miles (1,210 square kilometers) along hundreds of miles of rivers and streams in the western states.
Most breeding in the United States occurs in Arizona and New Mexico, but the habitat name also includes areas in California, Colorado, Utah, Texas and Idaho.
The name is not as big as initially proposed. Nature managers have chosen to exclude more than 300 square miles (777 square kilometers) of potential habitat after considering up-to-date information on ongoing conservation activities, the lack of adequate habitat in some areas and possible interference with critical infrastructure.
“This name identifies important feeding grounds and breeding grounds for the cuckoo to support the species’ recovery and also balance the need to find solutions that support current and future land use plans, ”Michael Fris, field supervisor of the Sacramento Fisheries and Wildlife Office, said in a statement.
A habitat plan that encompassed more than 2,200 square miles was first floated in 2014 but never approved. The Trump administration has proposed a smaller area in 2020, which has led to the latest round of public comment. As a result, the name published this week by the Biden administration has been further reduced.
“This failure reflects the real need for the Biden government to bring new leadership and reform the agency,” said Brian Segee, a senior lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group that works to protect endangered species.
Federal biologists describe the cuckoo as a transient species. Hard to observe, it chooses its nesting sites according to habitat conditions and the availability of food. This means that breeding habitat not suitable one year may become suitable the next due to increased rainfall or flooding, while favorable areas could degrade the following year.
Every spring and fall, the cuckoo uses river corridors as paths to travel between its wintering and breeding grounds. Nesting pairs find refuge in willows, cotton fields and other trees along waterways and once their chicks hatch, their voracious appetites for insects help them feed for the return south.
Listed as threatened in 2014, biologists say the bird has seen a decline in population due to loss of riverside habitat and habitat fragmentation resulting from agriculture, dams and river management, erosion, overgrazing and competition from exotic plants.
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