Book reviews: Birds and bears

Published April 21, 2019, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America by Rick Wright, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.Birders can be nerdy.

This is a book for sparrow nerds and would-be nerds.

There are three main parts to Wright’s multi-page treatment of each of 76 sparrow species or major subspecies: history of its scientific description and naming, field identification, and range and geographic variation.

Did you know the pink-sided junco (dark-eyed junco subspecies) has Wyoming roots? A Smithsonian collecting trip, the South Pass Wagon Road expedition, made it to Fort Bridger, in the far southwest corner of what is now Wyoming, in the spring of 1858. Constantin Charles Drexler, assistant to the surgeon, collected a sparrow identified as an Oregon junco and shipped it back to Washington, D.C.

About 40 years later, experts determined it was the earliest collected specimen of pink-sided junco and Drexler, who went on many more collecting forays, lives on, famous forever on the internet.

Wright’s feather by feather field identification comparisons will warm a birder’s heart, as will the multiple photos. However, over half of each account is devoted to range and geographic variation. No map. No list of subspecies by name. To the uninitiated, including me, apparently, Wright’s writing rambles. If you would become an expert on North American sparrows, you will have to study hard.

Peterson Field Guide to Bird Sounds of Western North America by Nathan Pieplow, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

It’s here, the western counterpart of Nathan Pieplow’s eastern book I reviewed in July 2017, https://cheyennebirdbanter.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/.

Each species gets a page with a small range map and a short description of habitat. The tiny painting of the male bird (and female if it looks different) is not going to help you with feather-splitting identification problems. It’s just a faster way to identify the page you want if you are already familiar with the bird. 

Each species’ page has diagrams of the sounds it makes, spectrograms. They aren’t too different from musical notation. The introduction will teach you how to read them. In addition to the standard index for a reference book or a field guide, there is an index of spectrograms. It works like a key, dividing bird sounds into seven categories and each of those are subdivided and each subdivision lists possible birds.

Then you go online to www.PetersonBirdSounds.com to listen. I looked up one of my favorite spring migrants, the lazuli bunting. There are 15 recordings. Birds can have regional accents, so it was nice to see recordings from Colorado, including some made by Pieplow, a Coloradoan. If you’ve ever wanted to study birdsongs and other bird sounds, this is the field guide for you. 

A Season on the Wind, Inside the World of Spring Migration by Kenn Kaufman, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I referenced the advance reading copy of this book a couple months ago when discussing the coming development of the wind farm at Cheyenne’s Belvoir Ranch. It gave me insights into the impact of wind energy on birds and bats.

The larger part of this book is about spring migration where birds and birdwatchers congregate in droves along the southwest shore of Lake Erie.

It’s as much about the birds as it is the community of birders, beginning with those year-round regulars at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory like Kaufman and his wife, Kimberly Kaufman, the executive director, and the migrant birdwatchers who come from all over the world, some year after year.

Even if you know a lot about bird migration, this is worth a read just for the poetry of Kaufman’s prose as he describes how falling in love with Kimberly brought him to northwestern Ohio where he fell in love again, with the Black Swamp, a place pioneers avoided. 

Down the Mountain, The Life and Death of a Grizzly Bear by Bryce Andrews, c. 2019, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Are you familiar with the genre “creative nonfiction”? It means a book or other piece of writing is factual, but uses literary conventions like plot, character, scene, suspense. This is a suspenseful story. We already expect a death, based on the book’s subtitle.

Rancher-writer-conservationist Andrews documents how a bear he refers to as Millie, an experienced mother with three cubs, gets in trouble in the Mission Valley of western Montana despite his efforts to protect her and other bears from their worst instincts.

Don’t turn out the lights too soon after following Andrews into the maze of field corn where grizzlies like to gather on a dark night.

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BirdCast

BirdCast improves birding—and bird safety

By Barb Gorges

            Last year, the folks at Cornell Lab of Ornithology improved and enhanced BirdCast, http://birdcast.info/. You can now get a three-night forecast of bird migration movement for the continental U.S. This not only helps avid birders figure out where to see lots of birds but helps operators of wind turbines know when to shut down and managers of tall buildings and structures when to shut the lights off (birds are attracted to lights and collide), resulting in the fewest bird deaths.

            The forecasts are built on 23 years of data that relates weather trends and other factors to migration timing.

            Songbird migration is predominately at night. Ornithologists discovered that radar, used to detect aircraft during World War II and then adapted for tracking weather events in the 1950s, was also detecting clouds of migrating birds.

            There is a network of 143 radar stations across the country, including the one by the Cheyenne airport. You can explore the data archive online and download maps for free.

            CLO’s Adriaan Doktor sent me an animation of the data collected from the Cheyenne station for May 7, 2018, one of last spring’s largest local waves of migration. He is one of the authors of a paper, “Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna,” https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4, based on radar information.

            At the BirdCast website, you can pull up the animation for the night of May 6-7 and see where the migrating birds were thickest across the country. The brightest white clouds indicate a density of as many as 50,000 birds per kilometer per hour—that’s a rate of 80,500 birds passing over a mile-long line per hour. Our flight was not that bright, maybe 16,000 birds crossing a mile-long line per hour. A strong flight often translates into a lot of birds coming to earth in the morning—very good birdwatching conditions. Although if flying conditions are excellent, some birds fly on.

            I also looked at the night of May 18-19, 2018, the night before last year’s Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count—hardly any activity. The weather was so nasty that Saturday, our bird compiler rescheduled for Sunday, which was not a big improvement. We saw only 113 species.

            Twenty-five years ago, the third Saturday of May could yield 130 to 150 species. Part of the difference is the greater number of expert Audubon birders who helped count back then. Birding expertise seems to go in generational waves.

            But we also know that songbird numbers are down. I read in Scott Weidensaul’s book, “Living on the Wind,” published in 1999, about Sidney Gauthreaux’s 1989 talk at a symposium on neotropical migrants. He used radar records to show that the frequency of spring migrant waves across the Gulf of Mexico was down by 50 percent over 30 years. Radar can’t count individual birds or identify species, but we know destruction or degradation of breeding and wintering habitat has continued as people develop rural areas.

            But I also wonder if, along with plants blooming earlier due to climate change, the peak of spring migration is earlier. A paper by scientists from the University of Helsinki, due to be published in June in the journal Ecological Indicators, shows that 195 species of birds in Europe and Canada are migrating on average a week earlier than 50 years ago, due to climate change.

            Would we have been better off holding last year’s Big Day on either of the previous two Saturdays? I looked at the radar animations for the preceding nights in 2018, and yes, there was a lot more migration activity in our area than on the night before the 19th. Both dates also had better weather.

           As much fun as our Big Day is—a large group of birders of all skill levels combing the Cheyenne area for birds from dawn to dusk (and even in the dark)—and as much effort as is put into it, there has never been a guarantee the Saturday we pick will be the height of spring migration.

           The good news is that in addition to our Big Day, we have half a dozen diehard local birders out nearly every day from the end of April to the end of May adding spring migration information to the eBird.org database. It’s a kind of addiction, rather like fishing, wondering what you’ll see if you cast your eyes up into the trees and out across the prairie.   I recommend that you explore BirdCast.info (and eBird.org) and sign up to join Cheyenne Audubon members for all or part of this year’s Big Day on May 18. See the chapter’s website and/or sign up for the free e-newsletter, https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/newsletters/.

Cheyenne bird book debuts

CheyBirdsbyMonth_FC_onlyCheyenne bird book coming out late October

Also published at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/cheyenne-birds-by-the-month-to-debut and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Oct. 14, 2018.

By Barb Gorges

I’m very good at procrastinating. How about you? But I’ve discovered there are some advantages.

From 2008 to 2010, I wrote “Bird of the Week” blurbs for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle to run in those sky boxes at the top of the To Do section pages. But they needed photos.

I asked one of the Wyobirds e-list subscribers from Cheyenne, Pete Arnold. Pete invites people to join his own e-list, where he shares his amazing bird photos. He generously agreed.

Using the checklist of local birds prepared by Jane Dorn and Greg Johnson for the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society, I chose 104 of the most common species and set to work figuring out which weeks to assign them to. Pete perused his photos and was able to match about 90 percent.

We eventually met in person–at Holliday Park. Pete stopped on his way to work one morning to snap waterfowl photos and I was walking a friend’s dog and counting birds. We discovered we have several mutual friends.

By the time our two-year project was over, I’d heard about making print-on-demand books, uploading files via internet for a company to make into a book. I rashly promised Pete I’d make a book of our collaboration. After the paper published BOW, I had all the rest of the rights to the text. And I’ve had college courses in editing and publishing.

Here’s where my procrastination comes in. Over the next six years my family had three graduations, three weddings, three funerals and two households to disassemble, not to mention my husband Mark retired and wanted to travel more.

Finally, a couple years ago, I gave print-on-demand a trial run through Amazon, designing my small book about quilt care. I realized then the bird book would be beyond my talents and software. I considered learning InDesign but also started looking for a professional.

I discovered, through the social media site LinkedIn, that Tina Worthman designed books in her spare time. We’d started talking when she got the job as director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. No more spare time.

However, Tina recommended Chris Hoffmeister and her company, Western Sky Design. What a great match—she’s a birder! I didn’t have to worry about her mismatching photo and text. And she could speak to Pete about image properties and other technicalities.

Song Sparrow - Pete Arnold

Song Sparrow by Pete Arnold from “Cheyenne Birds by the Month.”

The book features a 6 x 6-inch image of each bird. Chris asked Pete to provide bigger image sizes, since the small ones he’d used for the paper would be fuzzy. He also had to approve all the cropping into the square format. But the upside of my procrastination is he had more photos to choose from.

There were still a few species Pete didn’t have and so we put out a call on Wyobirds. We got help from Elizabeth Boehm, Jan Backstrom and Mark Gorges.

Meanwhile, even though the WTE features editor at the time, Kevin Wingert, had originally edited BOW, I sent my text for each species, and all the other parts of the book (introduction, acknowledgements, word from the photographer, bird checklist, resources list), to Jane Dorn, co-author of the book Wyoming Birds. Another friend, Jeananne Wright, a former technical writer and editor, and non-birder, caught a few ambiguities and pointed out where I’d left non-birders wondering what I meant.

The title of the book was the last step. Instead of naming it Bird of the Week, two years’ worth of bird images and written bird impressions/trivia are organized differently. The title is “Cheyenne Birds by the Month, 104 Species of Southeastern Wyoming’s Resident and Visiting Birds.”

The book is being printed by local company PBR Printing—print-on-demand is too expensive for multiple copies.

While the book will be available late October at the Wyoming State Museum and other local outlets, our major marketing partner is the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, a natural fit since it is in the middle of Lions Park, a state Important Bird Area.

The Gardens will have the book available at their gift shop and at two book signings they are hosting: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 – 3 p.m., 710 S. Lions Park Dr.

You can get a sneak peak, and Pete’s behind the camera stories, at our presentation for Cheyenne Audubon Oct. 16, 7 p.m. in the Cottonwood Room at the Laramie County Library, 2200 Pioneer Ave.

For more information about the book and updates on where to find it, see Yucca Road Press, https://yuccaroadpress.com/. If you don’t live in Cheyenne but would like to order a copy, please email bgorges4@msn.com.

It took part of a village to make this book and we are hoping the whole village will enjoy reading it.

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Drawing by Jane Dorn and design by Chris Hoffmeister.

Burrowing owls materialize

Burrowing Owl by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson took this photo of a Burrowing Owl June 16, 2018, on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society field trip around southeastern Wyoming.

“Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands,” published July 29, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and at Wyoming Network News, https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/burrowing-owls-materialize-on-southeast-wyoming-grasslands.

Burrowing owls materialize on southeast Wyoming grasslands

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By Barb Gorges

Burrowing owls were like avian unicorns for me until this spring. Mark, my husband, and I searched prairie dog towns in southeastern Wyoming to no avail.

It wasn’t always like that. Fifteen years ago there was a spot on the east edge of Cheyenne guaranteed to produce a sighting for the Cheyenne Audubon Big Day Bird Count. But the area around it got more and more built up.

I did some research through my subscription to Birds of North America, https://birdsna.org and discovered burrowing owls don’t require complete wilderness.

These owls are diurnal—they are active during the day, most active at dawn and dusk. However, when the males have young to feed, they hunt 24/7.

The eggs are laid in old animal burrows, primarily those of prairie dogs. Because prairie dogs live in colonies, the burrowing owls tend to appear in groups, too, though much smaller. Besides nesting burrows, they have roosting burrows for protection from predators. They stockpile prey in both kinds of burrows in anticipation of feeding young. One cache described in a Saskatchewan study had 210 meadow voles and two deer mice.

Western burrowing owls, from southwestern Canada to southwestern U.S., winter in Central and South America. However, there are year-round populations in parts of California, southernmost Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas and on south. But there is also a subspecies of the owl that lives in Florida and the Caribbean year-round. They excavate their own burrows.

Burrowing owls breed in the open, treeless grasslands. No one is sure why, but they like to line their nesting burrows with dung from livestock. They, along with their prairie dog neighbors, appreciate how grazing animals keep the grass short. It’s easier to see approaching predators.

The owls’ biggest natural nest predator is the badger. Both young and adults can scare predators away from their burrows by giving a call that imitates a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Short grass means it’s easier to catch prey by walking or hopping on the ground as well as flying. Burrowing owls also like being near agricultural fields.

The fields attract their primary prey species: grasshoppers, crickets, moths, beetles, and in addition to small mammals like mice and voles, shrews.

You would think these owls are ranchers’ and farmers’ best friends. However, in the Birds of North America’s human impacts list are wind turbines, barbed wire, vehicle collisions, pesticides and shooting. I’m surprised by shooting.

Since western burrowing owls can’t be blamed for making the holes in pastures (they only renovate and maintain burrows by kicking out dirt) I can only surmise that varmint hunters have bad eyesight and can’t tell an owl from a prairie dog. It could be an easy mistake: Owls are nearly the color and size of prairie dogs and have similar round heads. Except the owls stand on long skinny legs. From a distance the owls look like prairie dogs hovering over the burrow’s mound—and then if you watch long enough, they fly.

Burrowing owls have been in sharp decline since the 1960s despite laying 6 to 12 eggs per nest. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Network, http://burrowingowlconservation.org, reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists them as “a Bird of Conservation Concern at the national level, in three USFWS regions, and in nine Bird Conservation Regions. At the state level, burrowing owls are listed as endangered in Minnesota, threatened in Colorado, and as a species of concern in Arizona, California, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.”

In our state, Grant Frost, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist, said “(burrowing owls) are what we classify as a species of greatest conservation need (SGCN), but mostly due to a lack of information; their status is unknown.  That is why these surveys were started three years ago.  There are 15 surveys being done throughout the state in potential habitat…each survey route is done three times each year during set times to occur during each of the three nesting stages – pre-incubation, incubation/hatching, and nestling.”

When Grant said he could lead an Audubon field trip to see the owls and other prairie birds, 15 of us jumped at the chance.

As might be predicted from the BNA summary of the literature, the owls were in the middle of an agricultural setting of fields and pastures. We watched them hunt around a flock of sheep and enjoy the view from the tops of fence posts along an irrigation canal.

The first sightings of the morning were distant—hard to see even with a spotting scope. But as we departed for home, driving a little farther down the road, two burrowing owls appeared much closer and we all felt finally that we could say we’d seen them and not just flying brown smudges.

Keep birds safe

2018-05 Catio Jeffrey Gorges

A “catio” is a place for cats to hang out outside that keeps the birds safe–and the cats too. Photo by Jeffrey Gorges.

Published May 6, 2018 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Keep birds safe this time of year” and also at https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/keep-birds-safe-this-time-of-year.

By Barb Gorges

It’s that time of year that we need to think about bird safety —migration and nesting season.

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Bird Tape is available from the American Bird Conservancy. Photo courtesy ABC.

The peak of spring migration in Cheyenne is around mid-May. If you have a clean window that reflects sky, trees and other greenery, you’ll get a few avian visitors bumping into it. Consider applying translucent stickers to the outside of the window or Bird Tape from the American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org.

If a bird hits your window, make sure your cat is not out there picking it up. The bird may only be stunned. If necessary, put the bird somewhere safe and where it can fly off when it recovers.

How efficient is your outdoor lighting? In addition to wasting money, excessive light confuses birds that migrate at night. Cheyenne keeps getting brighter and brighter at night because people install lighting that shines up as well as down, especially at businesses with parking lots. It is also unhealthy for trees and other vegetation, not to mention people trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Do you have nest boxes? Get them cleaned out before new families move in. Once the birds move in or you find a nest elsewhere, do you know the proper protocol for observing it?

You might be interested in NestWatch, https://nestwatch.org/, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology citizen science program for reporting nesting success.

Their Nest Monitoring Manual says to avoid checking the nest in the morning when the birds are busy, or at dusk when predators are out. Wait until afternoon. Walk past the nest rather than up to it and back leaving a scent trail pointing predators straight to the nest. And avoid bird nests when the young are close to fledging—when they have most of their feathers. We don’t want them to get agitated and leave the nest prematurely.

Some birds are “flightier” than others. Typically, birds nesting alongside human activity—like the robins that built the nest on top of your porch light—are not going to abandon the nest if you come by. Rather, they will be attacking you. But a hawk in a more remote setting will not tolerate people. Back off and get out your spotting scope or your big camera lenses.

If your presence causes a young songbird to jump out of the nest, you can try putting it back in. NestWatch says to hold your hand or a light piece of fabric over the top of the nest until the young bird calms down so it doesn’t jump again. Often though, the parents will take care of young that leave the nest prematurely. Hopefully, there aren’t any loose cats waiting for a snack.

2018-05Henry-Barb Gorges

Cats learn to enjoy the comforts of being indoors. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Loose cats and dogs should also be controlled on the prairie between April and July, and mowing avoided. That is because we have ground-nesting birds here on the edge of the Great Plains such as western meadowlark, horned lark and sometimes the ferruginous hawk.

There will always be young birds that run into trouble, either natural or human-aided. Every wild animal eventually ends up being somebody else’s dinner. But if you decide to help an injured animal, be sure the animal won’t injure you. For instance, black-crowned night-herons will try to stab your eyes. It is also illegal to possess wild animals without a permit so call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, 307-635-4121, or the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 307-777-4600.

Avoid treating your landscape with pesticides. The insect pest dying from toxic chemicals you spread could poison the bird that eats it. Instead, think of pest species as bird food. Or at least check with the University of Wyoming Extension office, 307-633-4383, for other ways to protect your lawn and vegetables.

Are you still feeding birds? We take our seed feeders down in the summer because otherwise the heat and moisture make dangerous stuff grow in them if you don’t clean them every few days. Most seed-eating birds are looking for insects to feed their young anyway. Keep your birdbaths clean too.

 

2018-05hummingbirds-Sandia Crest-Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds fill up at a feeder on Sandia Crest, New Mexico, in mid-July. Photo by Barb Gorges.

However, we put up our hummingbird feeder when we see the first fall migrants show up in our yard mid-July, though they prefer my red beebalm and other bright tubular flowers. At higher elevations outside Cheyenne hummers might spend the summer.

Make sure your hummingbird feeder has bright red on it. Don’t add red dye to the nectar though. The only formula that is good for hummingbirds is one part white sugar to four parts water boiled together. Don’t substitute any other sweeteners as they will harm the birds. If the nectar in the feeder gets cloudy after a few days, replace it with a fresh batch.

And finally, think about planting for birds. Check out the Habitat Hero information at http://rockies.audubon.org/programs/habitat-hero-education.

Enjoy the bird-full season!

How well do birds tolerate people?

2018-03TurkeyVulturebyMarkGorges-1

Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

Also published here: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/do-birds-tolerate-people

Every soaring bird I saw in early February along 1300 miles of interstate highway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a black vulture or turkey vulture.

However near Vero Beach, Florida, where we were visiting Cheyenne snowbirds Karen and Fred Pannell, there was a black bird of a different shape, a magnificent frigatebird, a life bird for both me and my husband Mark.

But about those vultures, were they really more abundant along the interstate than away from it? Were they waiting for roadkill? We passed a couple landfill “mountains” that were big vulture magnets too.

We think wild birds go about their lives oblivious to people, or at least avoiding us. Except for birds coming to feeders. Or ducks at the park looking for handouts. Or Canada geese that enjoy eating the grass on park lawns and the leftover grain in farmers’ fields.

We know that some human activities are detrimental to birds. But how many are beneficial to them? Chimney swifts have experienced both. We took down the old hollow trees they used to build their nests in and they moved into our chimneys.

The speaker at February’s Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Cameron Nordell, relayed interesting research results on nesting ferruginous hawks and their reactions to people. Nordell, Raptor Fellow at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is with the Wyoming Raptor Initiative.

In his previous work in southern Alberta, Nordell and his colleagues experimented in part to see at what distance hawks would flush from their nests as researchers approached by vehicle or on foot to check the nests for other aspects of the study.

Southern Alberta is a mix of agriculture, oil and gas and other development. The farmers and home owners have planted trees on the prairie and the ferruginous hawks have found them to be great for nesting—they are a ground-nesting hawk otherwise. The trees give them better protection from predators.

However, along with people came another species that climbs trees—and raids nests—racoons. Barns and other structures have helped increase the population of great horned owls and they too prey on the nestlings.

Ferruginous hawks nesting near the busiest roads were more tolerant than birds that had not seen as much traffic. Approaching vehicles were tolerated better than approaching people.

Raptors have been shown to hang out by roads, looking for injured prey species. The problem is that they risk getting hit by vehicles too.

The Wyoming Raptor Initiative (see https://wyomingbiodiversity.org/Initiatives-Programs) wants to understand the state’s raptors better, including the road problem. It has two goals:

“(1) To synthesize our scientific understanding of raptors in Wyoming so that the public, scientists, land managers and energy companies will be better informed in developing and implementing future conservation strategies and land mitigation efforts.

“(2) To foster appreciation of raptors in Wyoming and the world through education and outreach efforts.”

Nordell and his colleagues will be looking at previous studies of raptors in Wyoming, gathering more data, talking to all kinds of people to get more information, and then they’ll relay what they learn.

What will they discover about Wyoming’s ferruginous hawks, for instance? What human activities help them or harm them?

Nordell also studied arctic peregrine falcons near Hudson Bay, where there were few direct human impacts. However, the weather was ferocious. Too much rain, and a young bird, poorly nourished, could succumb to the cold rainwater collecting in the cliff-face nest. Better-fed youngsters had better survival rates.

The next questions: What affects the availability of peregrine prey species and the peregrine parents’ ability to bring food back to the nest? Is there any human influence on their success? Are humans linked in any way to that Arctic location getting demonstrably rainier?

What will be discovered about peregrines in Wyoming? I watched one nail a duck on a ranch reservoir just outside Cheyenne once. The human-made lake attracted the peregrine’s food target—southeastern Wyoming doesn’t have many natural water bodies.

I look forward to answers from the Wyoming Raptor Initiative. I’m sure they will also discover many more questions.

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Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Sage grouse captive breeding success doubtful

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Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 10, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Critics of sage grouse captive breeding doubt it will succeed.”

Note: The American Ornithological Society’s spelling is “Greater Sage-Grouse.”  The Associated Press style when the full name is not used is “sage grouse.”

By Barb Gorges

Over the eons, the greater sage-grouse figured out how to prosper in the sagebrush.

It’s not an easy life. Some years are too wet and the chicks die. Others are too dry with few leaves, buds, flowers or insects and the chicks starve. Some years there are too many hungry coyotes, badgers and ravens.

Every spring the sage grouse go to the meet-up at the lek, the sage grouse version of a bar [To find where to see sage grouse in Wyoming go to https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Habitat/Sage grouse-Management/Sage grouse-Lek-Viewing-Guide]. The males puff out their chests vying for the right to take the most females, then love them and leave them to raise the chicks on their own.

Experienced hens look for the best cover for their nests. They teach the young how to find food and avoid predators. In fall, every sage grouse migrates to winter habitat, 4-18 miles away.

In the past hundred years, obstacles were thrown in the path of sage grouse, including in their Wyoming stronghold where sagebrush habitat can be found across the whole state except in the southeast and northwest corners.

The low-flying birds collide with fences, vehicles, utility lines. The noise from oil and gas operations pushes them away. Sagebrush disappears with development.

Each state is responsible for all wildlife within its borders. But if a species heads for extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps in. Since 1985, the sage grouse population declined 30 percent across the West. It looked like the species might be listed as either threatened or endangered, curtailing oil and gas drilling and other development.

Last month I explained how Wyoming conservationists, sportsmen, the oil and gas industry, agricultural interests and state and local government collaborated on a state plan to conserve sage grouse. However, the current federal administration wants all the state plans to be examined to see if sage grouse habitat can be more densely developed.

Wyoming’s collaborators strongly disagree with the attempt. Public comments were solicited by the Bureau of Land Management through the end of November and the Forest Service is taking comments through January 5 [https://www.federalregister.gov. In the search area type: Ask Forest Service to Amend Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan.].

Meanwhile, a Wyoming man is hoping to change the dynamics of the sage grouse issue by increasing their population through captive breeding.

Diemer True, of the True Companies (oil and gas drilling, support, pipelines, and seven ranches), and former president of the Wyoming Senate, bought Karl Baer’s game bird farm in Powell.

True convinced the Wyoming Legislature to pass legislation during the 2017 session to allow him and Baer to apply for a permit allowing them to take up to 250 sage grouse eggs from the wild per year and experiment for five years with captive breeding. The idea is that birds can be released, bring up the numbers and maybe allow higher density of development in protected areas.

But no one has been very successful captive breeding sage grouse. No one has successfully released them to procreate in the wild and, if True is successful, he wants his techniques to be proprietary—he won’t share them. He wants to profit from wildlife rather than take the more typical route of supporting academic research.

Gov. Matt Mead signed the captive breeding legislation into law this fall. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission wrote very specific regulations about it, which you can read at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Regulations/Regulation-PDFs/REGULATIONS_CH60.

Five permits are allowed, for a total withdrawal of 1,250 eggs per year, but it is doubtful that anyone besides True and Baer will qualify. Consensus among wildlife biologists I spoke to is that True will have trouble finding 250 wild eggs for his permit.

The facility requirements mean True is building new pens separated from the bird farm’s other operations. Despite these best management practices, there’s still a chance captive-bred birds could infect wild birds when they are released.

[The Wyoming Game and Fish Department monitors sage grouse leks every spring to see how successful the previous year’s breeding was. Numbers naturally vary widely year to year. The effects of captive breeding on these surveys will be included when setting hunting limits.]

No one who knows sage grouse well believes they can be bred in captivity successfully. Young sage grouse learn about survival from their mothers. By contrast, the non-native pheasant captive-bred here is acknowledged to be a “put-and-take” hunting target. It hardly ever survives to breed on its own.

We can only hope that this sage grouse experiment will go well. If captive-bred chicks don’t thrive in the wild, there will be some well-fed coyotes, badgers and ravens.