Condors in Wyoming

2018-08Condor 832_edited-1-Brian Waitkus

California Condor T2 perches atop Medicine Bow Peak in the Snowy Range in southeastern Wyoming in early July 2018. Photo courtesy Brian R. Waitkus.

Published Aug. 19, 2018, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, and at Wyoming Network News: https://www.wyomingnetworknews.com/condor-visits-wyoming-next-condor-needs-to-find-steel-instead-of-lead.

Condor visits Wyoming; next condor needs to find steel instead of lead

By Barb Gorges

Exciting news in the Wyoming birdwatching community: A California condor, North America’s largest raptor with 9.5-foot wingspan, was sighted July 7 west of Laramie perched on Medicine Bow Peak. The reporting birder was Nathan Pieplow. He is the author of the Peterson guide to bird sounds. Maybe he recorded it.

Wing tags printed with a big T2 declared this was a female condor hatched and raised in 2016 at the Portland, Oregon, zoo and released in March at the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in northern Arizona.

Several people from the Laramie Audubon chapter climbed up to see the condor. Brian Waitkus got excellent photos.

Medicine Bow Peak, elevation 12,014 feet, is a popular destination for hikers who want a challenge including lightning and boulder fields. As many as a dozen hikers were congregating near the condor July 9. The condor didn’t mind people but was flushed by three dogs off leash, observed Murie Audubon president Zach Hutchinson.

2018-08Condor T2Brian Waitkus

T2 was outfitted with wing tags and transmitter by the Peregrine Fund before her release in Arizona in March 2018. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

T2 was one of many condors released into the wild by the Peregrine Fund working to re-establish the population of this officially endangered species. In 1982 there were only 22 birds left. Today there are 500, half flying free in Arizona, Utah, California and Baja Mexico. Some are now breeding in the wild. For more, read Condors in Canyon Country by Sophie A. H. Osborn and https://www.peregrinefund.org/.

The distance between the Arizona release site and the peak is only 440 miles as the condor flies, not difficult for a bird that can travel 200 miles a day. T2 was spotted earlier, on June 28, near Roosevelt, Utah.

The closest previous Wyoming condor sighting was 1998, in Utah at Flaming Gorge Reservoir, which spans the Utah-Wyoming line.

T2’s visit was brief. A Peregrine Fund researcher following the condor using telemetry later got the signal 30 miles away indicating the bird was not moving. By the time he arrived, the bird was dead. It’s been sent to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for autopsy. Foul play was not suspected.

Serendipitously, soon after the first news broke about T2, Chris Parish, director of global conservation for the Peregrine Fund, was about to drop his daughter off in Laramie. He offered to give a talk on condors sponsored by the Laramie Audubon Society and the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute.

In his presentation, Chris touched briefly on the history of restoring the condor population.

Condors are tough. They survived the large mammal extinction 10,000 years ago. However, they are slow to reproduce, only one chick every two years. At propagation centers, experts can get a pair to lay an extra egg to put in an incubator.

Condors live 50 to 60 years by avoiding predators and finding new habitat. A few are still being shot, despite condors being as harmless as turkey vultures, eating only carrion–already dead animals. They fly into powerlines and get hit by vehicles too.

The biggest problem for condors is poisoning from lead ammunition, Chris said. When a deer is shot, the bullet disintegrates into hundreds of fragments. Often, the fragments are in the gut pile, or offal, that hunters leave in the field. Offal is the condor’s main dish.

All those little lead fragments add up and eventually cause lead poisoning. Some of those lead fragments also find their way into game meat people eat. Researchers try to check the blood lead levels of all free-flying condors once a year and treat them if necessary before releasing them again.

Our national symbol, the bald eagle, also feeds at carcasses. In 1991 lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned but upland animals—and birds like the eagle–are not protected.

Arizona Game and Fish Department a few years ago asked hunters on the Kaibab Plateau, where condors are released, to voluntarily use steel ammunition or to remove offal. They offered each participant two free boxes of steel ammunition. Participation is now at 87 percent. A similar program is nearly as successful in Utah. California has banned lead ammunition since 2008, said Chris.

The Peregrine Fund holds shooting trials and gives away steel ammunition for hunters to test. Chris, a lifelong hunter, spouts ballistic statistics with ease. The bottom line is that lead and steel ammunition of comparable quality are nearly the same cost. However, manufacturers need encouragement to offer more variety.

Chris also said that yes, steel ammunition takes a little practice for the hunter to become proficient with it, but practice is required any time a hunter switches to the same caliber ammunition made by a different manufacturer.

Steel bullets aren’t silver bullets for all wildlife problems. But maybe Wyoming can join the steel states. That way we’ll make it safer here for when more condors show up.

2018-08Condor head-Brian Waitkus

T2, a juvenile California Condor, hadn’t developed her red-skinned head yet. Photo courtesy of Brian R. Waitkus.

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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.

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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.

 

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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!

Eagle safety collaboration

golden-eagle-courtesy-audubon-rockies

Golden Eagle. Photo courtesy of Audubon Rockies.

Published Sept. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Collaboration could keep eagles safe.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, while researching the wind energy/eagle issue, I learned about new technology that could help eagles survive encounters with wind farms.

IdentiFlight uses stereoscopic cameras to detect and identify eagles in flight far enough out to shut down a turbine, preventing a deadly collision.

The idea that cameras hooked up to a computer can learn to “see” eagles, using machine vision technology, is as remarkable as the collaboration behind it.

It starts with Renewable Energy Systems, started in 1982, and now a global company in the business of designing and installing as well as developing wind energy projects.

I spoke with Tom Hiester, vice president of strategy for RES Americas, whose office is in Broomfield, Colorado.

He said RES is funding the development of IdentiFlight and will own the rights to the technology and sell equipment. Other wind companies concerned with avoiding the fines for killing eagles will be the customers.

RES is working with Boulder Imaging, a Boulder, Colorado, tech company specializing in industrial precision applications.

Initial testing of the IdentiFlight system was done through the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Its testing facility, the National Wind Technology Center, is south of Boulder on 300 acres up against the foothills, where the wind can be ferocious. Companies, universities and government agencies come to test their turbines for reliability and performance.

Machine vision requires training the computer. In this case, it needed to see how real eagles fly. A golden eagle and a bald eagle were brought in from the Southeastern Raptor Center, where birds of prey are rehabilitated. They also happened to be the mascots for Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama. You can see a video at www.energy.gov/eagles.

Hiester told me they have found that eagles are more susceptible to collisions when hunting. Their heads are down, eyes concentrating on the ground. Machine vision has to identify a moving object as an eagle at 1,000 meters to give the appropriate turbine the 30 seconds needed to shut down.

This summer, IdentiFlight is getting tested by a third party selected by the American Wind Wildlife Institute. AWWI was organized about eight years ago. Half its partners are a who’s who of wind energy companies. The other half are national environmental organizations such as Audubon and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as wildlife managers represented by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and scientists represented by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

One of AWWI’s interests is minimizing eagle deaths. They expect to publish and share what they learn. Besides detecting and deterring eagles from wind turbine collisions, they are also looking at lead abatement (lead shot in carcasses left by hunters will poison eagles because eagles often eat dead animals), reducing vehicle strikes (by removing dead animals along roads), and improving the habitat of eagle prey species.

AWWI science advisors include Dale Strickland of Cheyenne. His environmental consulting firm, Western EcoSystems Technology, has studied wind and wildlife interactions across the country for a number of years.

AWWI selected the Peregrine Fund to conduct the testing. The Peregrine Fund, established in Idaho in 1970 to protect and reestablish peregrine falcon populations, also works now with other raptors around the world.

The test site is Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm outside Casper. In general, Wyoming has more eagles than other states, and some of our topographic features that cause strong wind also concentrate eagles.

For the test, IdentiFlight cameras have been set up on a tower with a 360-degree view. When motion is identified as an eagle, and velocity and proximity figured, human researchers in an observation tower confirm it. In the future, the system would be totally automated and the identification of an eagle would trigger the shutdown of the turbine in the eagle’s path. IdentiFlight can also be used to survey for eagles on prospective wind sites.

Hiester said the number of eagles actually killed by wind turbines is minor. There are more deaths from other causes. But as more and more wind projects are built, that could change, especially in Wyoming where there is a lot of wind and a lot of eagles.

Most other bird species flying through wind farms don’t have the federal protections that eagles do. IdentiFlight won’t do much for them unless they fly alongside the eagles. Hiester said that thermal imaging techniques could help identify them and bats.

Hiester has been invited to share the results of this summer’s IdentiFlight trials the evening of January 17, 2017, at the meeting of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, which is expected to be held at the Laramie County Public Library.

Big Day bird count big picture

2016-05BigDay2-byMarkGorges - CopyPublished in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Opinion section May 22, 2016, “Bird count day gives us big picture.”

By Barb Gorges

            May Hanesworth was ahead of her time. An active Cheyenne birder as early as the 1940s, she made sure the results of the local spring bird counts were published every year in the Cheyenne paper. She recruited me in the 1990s to type the lists for her. She felt that someday there would be a place for that data and she was right.

            A few years ago, members of the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society collected and uploaded that data to eBird.org, a global database for bird observations. The oldest record we found was for 1956.

            We refer to the count we make at the height of spring migration as the Big Day Bird Count. Elsewhere in the world, competitive birders will, as a small team or solo, do a big day to see how many species they can find in a specified area. But the idea of a group of unlimited size like ours going out and scouring an area is unusual, though closer to what the originator, Lynds Jones, an Oberlin College ornithology professor, had in mind back in 1895.

            Now eBird.org has started a new tradition as of last year, the Global Big Day. This year it was scheduled for May 14, the same day as ours. Results show 15,642 people around the world saw 6,227 bird species. For our local count, 20 people looked for birds around Cheyenne, and 107 species were counted [Results were published elsewhere in the paper. See the list below.].

            Finding our favorite birds in the company of friends is a good incentive for taking part, but there is the science too. Back in the spring of 1956, May saw 85 species. And when Mark and I started in the 1990s, 150 seemed to be the norm—perhaps because Cheyenne had more trees by then. However, the last 10 years, the average is lower, 118.

            Maybe we aren’t as sharp as earlier birders. Or we are missing the peak of migration. Or we have lost prime habitat for migrating birds as the surrounding prairie gets built over and elderly trees are removed in town. Or it’s caused by deteriorating habitat in southern wintering grounds or northern breeding grounds.

            But imagine where we would be without the Migratory Bird Treaty.

            This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first agreement, in 1916, between the U.S. and Great Britain (signing for Canada), followed by other agreements and updates. In summary: “It is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, offer for sale, purchase or barter any migratory bird, or parts, nests or eggs.”

            Even migrating songbirds, like our Wyoming state bird, the western meadowlark, are protected.

            But who would want to hurt a meadowlark?

            Look at the Mediterranean flyway. Birdlife International reports 25 million birds of all kinds along it are shot or trapped every year for fun, food and the cage bird trade. Perpetrators think the supply of birds is endless. But we can point to the millions of passenger pigeons in North America prior to the death in 1914 of the last one, to show what can happen.

            The city of Eliat, Israel, is the funnel between Africa and Europe/Asia on the Mediterranean flyway, and to bring attention to the slaughter, the annual Champions of the Flyway bird race is based there. A big day event, this year it attracted 40 teams, Israeli and international, which counted a combined total of 243 species during 24 hours.

            This year, funds raised by the teams are going to Greece, to support education and enforcement—killing migratory birds is already illegal. Some of the worst-hit areas are in forests above beaches popular with tourists. Attracting birdwatching tourists could pay better than killing and trapping birds, a kind of change that has been beneficial elsewhere.  

            Many factors affect how many birds we see in Cheyenne on our big day, but we do have control over one aspect: habitat. If you live in the city, plant more trees and shrubs in appropriate places. If you live on acreage, protect the prairie and its ground-nesting grassland birds. And then join us on future Cheyenne Big Day Bird Counts and contribute to the global big picture of birds.

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count results affected by cold, wet weather

By Barb Gorges

            The 2016 Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count was held May 14. It was cold (33-43 degrees F), wet and foggy. Conditions kept down the number of birdwatchers participating as well as the number of birds observed.

            Thirteen Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society members and friends birded as a group at Lions Park, Wyoming Hereford Ranch and the High Plains Grasslands Research Station. Seven others birded on their own and contributed to the total of 107 species observed. Last year’s total was 110 species.

            Few flycatchers, vireos and warblers were seen because few insects, their primary food, were around due to the cold. Few kinds of shorebirds were seen at area reservoirs. High water levels from previous rain and snowfall left few areas of shallow water and exposed sandbars for them.

            Although many of the species that migrate through Cheyenne were seen, including willet, broad-winged hawk, Forster’s tern, ruby-crowned kinglet and western tanager, the day, weather notwithstanding, may not have represented quite the peak of spring migration.

             A highlight of the count was a black-and-white warbler at the research station. It is considered an eastern warbler, rarely seen this far west, although it does nest in the Black Hills.

            The Cheyenne Big Day ran concurrent with the Global Big Day. For a look at local and global results, see www.eBird.org/globalbigday. 

Cheyenne Big Day Bird Count

May 14, 2016

107 species total

Canada Goose

Gadwall

American Wigeon

Mallard

Blue-winged Teal

Cinnamon

Northern Shoveler

Northern Pintail

Green-winged Teal

Redhead

Ring-necked Duck

Lesser Scaup

Bufflehead

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Pied-billed Grebe

Eared Grebe

Western Grebe

Clark’s Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant

American White Pelican

Great Blue Heron

Black-crowned Night-Heron

White-faced Ibis

Turkey Vulture

Osprey

Cooper’s Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk

Swainson’s Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

American Coot

American Avocet

Killdeer

Spotted Sandpiper

Willet

Wilson’s Snipe

Wilson’s Phalarope

Red-necked Phalarope

Bonaparte’s Gull

Franklin’s Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Forster’s Tern

Rock Pigeon

Eurasian Collared-Dove

Mourning Dove

Belted Kingfisher

Downy Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

American Kestrel

Prairie Falcon

Western Wood-Pewee

Least Flycatcher

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Loggerhead Shrike

Blue Jay

Black-billed Magpie

American Crow

Common Raven

Tree Swallow

N. Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Barn Swallow

Mountain Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

House Wren

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Eastern Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

Veery

Swainson’s Thrush

Hermit Thrush

American Robin

Brown Thrasher

European Starling

Black-and-white Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Palm Warbler

Yelllow-rumped Warbler

Green-tailed Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-colored Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Lark Bunting

Song Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

Western Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Black-headed Grosbeak

Red-winged Blackbird

Western Meadowlark

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Common Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

Bullock’s Oriole

House Finch

Pine Siskin

Lesser Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

House Sparrow

Late grebes and loons take risk

Common Loon

The Common Loon can barely walk on land and if forced, will try to scoot along on its belly. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Risking nice Wyoming weather, grebes, loons get caught.”

By Barb Gorges

You probably recognize that sinking feeling I had the morning of Nov. 10 when we cleared Denver traffic and a solid wall of cloud was suddenly visible 50-60 miles away, between us and home.

The rain, predicted for afternoon, started around 9 a.m. at Fort Collins, Colorado. In a few miles it turned to flakes. The road surface quickly iced as we climbed in elevation.

Northbound traffic slowed to a crawl, but only because there was a traffic jam of emergency vehicles gathered near the Colorado-Wyoming state line, where vehicles slid off the interstate earlier. One was lying on its roof.

No matter how slowly, we were happy to still be creeping toward home.

Some birds, however, were not as lucky with the weather.

One would think that migratory birds would be tuned into changes, but even they can be caught unawares.

If you remember that week, along with the snow, the temperatures dropped into negative numbers at night. My husband was contemplating an early start to the ice fishing season.

On Nov. 14, I had a bird call–people wondering how to help a Western grebe found at the plant west of town. They took it to the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which is licensed to handle wild birds.

The bird had to be euthanized because a wing joint was broken and couldn’t be repaired. Veterinarian Christopher Church said two other grebes were rescued and brought in that week and staff were able to release them at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Later that day, a Wyobirds report came in about a loon stuck in a small bit of open water, unable to take off. Someone in the Riverton area reported eared grebes, I think it was, also getting stuck.

Grebes and loons have bodies evolved for swimming underwater, not walking. Their legs are at the back of their bodies, like an outboard motor, and not under their center of gravity, like a normal bird.

Because their feet do all the work when underwater, their wings are small. And their bones are not light and hollow like a songbird’s, but dense, making it easier to dive. Flying is difficult for them.

Ornithologist Joel Carl Welty calculated a loon’s wing-load, square centimeters of wing area to bird weight in grams, as 0.6. On the other hand, a black-capped chickadee is 6.1–comparatively buoyant. A Leach’s petrel, an ocean-going bird, finds flying extremely easy at 9.5.

So, these heavy loons and grebes, hardly ever trying to move around on land, can only take to the air by flapping while pattering their feet against the water surface, Loons need as much as 650 feet for takeoff , according to Arthur Cleveland Bent, another ornithologist.

You can see where this is going. The grebe tucks its head under its wing one night and the next morning looks around at new ice hemming it in. “Oh crud.”

The loon in the Wyobirds report kept busy diving for fish, and even tried walking a bit on the ice, but the next day, when the little bit of open water had frozen over, and the same observer went back, she saw no trace of the loon—not a feather or drop of blood, despite the bald eagles hanging around. It’s quite unlikely that it flew. Perhaps the ice was finally thick enough for someone to walk out and rescue it, or for a predator to carry it off.

Ducks, which are better-balanced, need little space to take off, but have managed to become trapped in ice also.

What happened to the grebe with the broken wing? Grebe species migrate at night. Apparently, they can get disoriented in snowstorms or fog or get confused by the sight of a wet parking lot shining in reflected lights, and hit it hard, thinking it’s water.

The common loon migrates through Wyoming, as do three species of grebes we see most often: pied-billed, eared and Western. Doug Faulkner, in “Birds of Wyoming,” describes their fall migration patterns, always mentioning that a few individual birds don’t leave until the reservoirs freeze up.

For these risk takers, the later they stay, the fewer birds they have to share the food source with. Some years, the bet pays off and they are better fed when they arrive on the wintering grounds, reaping the benefits, such as better reproduction. But then again, maybe they don’t make it.

After surviving this latest, unexpectedly dicey road trip, our weather forecasting being not much better than the lingerers’, I’m wondering if we should have taken a lesson from all the smart loons and grebes that headed out by October for their ice-free wintering grounds.

Feral cat policy will fail

House cat

An indoor house cat is safe from outdoor dangers, and the birds are safer. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec.10, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, as a column on the opinion page. “Feral cat policy will fail.”

By Barb Gorges

Last month, the Cheyenne City Council passed an ordinance allowing the Cheyenne Animal Shelter to implement a “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release program” for feral cats in the city.

The shelter staff is tired of euthanizing cats–84 last month alone, many more in spring months–and sees this as a proactive measure.

The Community Cat Initiative allows “community cat caregivers” to bring in feral cats and pay $30 to sterilize and vaccinate then release them, their ears tipped so they can easily be recognized as neutered.

Normally, unwanted cats, if not adoptable (and there is a barn cat adoption program for the less sociable), are euthanized.

I object to the TNR program, as it is referred to, for several reasons.

One is, I love cats. Our current feline, an indoor cat, is pushing 16 and is curled up on my shoulder as I write this.

I think more inhumane than euthanizing them is leaving cats outdoors. Feral cats as well as roaming family pets encounter life-threatening dangers: vehicles, predators–including other cats, not to mention inhospitable weather.

Conversely, feral cats untrapped—and unvaccinated—are public, human, health concern.

Why tolerate cats running loose, but not dogs?

It’s also inhumane to leave wildlife at the mercy of a non-native predator like the cat. Many of our native birds here on the prairie are ground nesters, easy prey, as are small mammals.

In the U.S., free-roaming domestic cats kill an estimated 1.4 billion to 3.7 billion birds and 6.9 to 20.7 billion mammals each year, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sponsored-study. More recent studies show it could be more.

Nowhere in the literature has “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” been shown to be successful in controlling feral cat populations.

On paper, the program sounds good, and I wish it worked.

Simply put, if you have a colony of cats and neuter all of them, the colony will die out when the last cat dies. Problem solved in the space of a feral cat’s lifetime—probably less than five years.

In real life, no agency practicing “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” has been able to trap enough cats to substantially lower the population.

Cheyenne’s policy, waiting for the public to bring feral cats in, is doomed to fail even more rapidly.

Trapping cats is a bit like herding them. Plus, do the soft-hearted have deep enough pockets?

A staff member at the shelter said they are pursuing grants that would allow for a more aggressive “trap, neuter, vaccinate and release” program.

Meanwhile, we’ll have an ever-increasing feral cat population (think about lying awake at night listening to cat fights) until nature finally deals with it—probably an ugly new and deadly disease. Not very humane.

Here are some more humane suggestions.

Hunt for nests of kittens and bring them in to be neutered and adopted at the age they can be socialized and become happy indoor cats. But don’t allow them to be released outdoors.

Also, instead of charging people to bring in feral cats for neutering and vaccination, pay them $30. Putting a price on a species sent the passenger pigeon to extinction and nearly did the same for the buffalo.

Next, release adult, neutered feral cats, if they cannot be socialized, in a cattery, a place where they are safe and wildlife is safe from them.

Those options I’ve mentioned take money. Meanwhile, the problem grows.

I don’t think it is fair to ask people charged with sheltering animals to do what really needs to be done from the wildlife and public health standpoint.

The wildlife agencies need to step in, as they have in Hawaii, another place where non-native predators, including feral cats, are decimating the wildlife.

Removing feral cats, euthanizing them, is not a happy proposition. Each one looks just like our own cat.

We need the fortitude to take actions to insure the well-being of cats. Releasing them to fend for themselves is not good for them, nor for wildlife.

If you want to read a balanced look at this topic, see this Nebraska Extension Service publication, “Feral Cats and Their Management,” http://ianrpubs.unl.edu/live/ec1781/build/ec1781.pdf.

A hawk ate my songbird!

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A Cooper’s Hawk in our backyard nailed an Eurasian Collared-Dove, first plucking it, then gorging, then flying away with the remains. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Dec. 25, 2011, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “A hawk ate my songbird! Bird feeder or bird feedlot, it’s all a part of the food chain.”

2014 Update: This year there were reports of Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks in Cheyenne preying on Eurasian Collared-Doves, an invasive species that first arrived in town in 1998.

By Barb Gorges

Coming home from errands recently, I let the dog in and glanced out the window. What was that on the grass in the backyard? It was a sharp-shinned hawk sitting on its prey, maybe a sparrow. How exciting!

Mark and I have fed birds for years and though we’ve seen plenty of sharp-shinneds patrol our yard, this was the first time one of us saw one be successful.

Most people think of small songbirds when they think about bird feeding, so watching hawks feed on feeder birds can come as an unwelcome surprise.

I’ve had callers who ask me how to protect “their” birds from hawks. They aren’t always happy to hear me explain how wonderful it is that they are witnessing the next step in the food chain.

For a small hawk like the sharp-shinned, which has the aerodynamics to navigate the urban forest easily, our bird feeders must seem like feedlots. But when the feeders/feedlots are right outside our windows and we welcome the same cheerful chickadees day after day, I think we forget their role in the food chain and food web.

Mark and I are on a first-name basis with several farmers and ranchers who raise our meat, if not with the actual animals, plus we hunt and fish, commiserating with predator species. But even if we were vegetarian, we would be wrong to transfer that ideology to wild, meat-eating animals. Carnivorous, omnivorous and carrion-eating animals need animal protein to stay healthy.

Most of the little songbirds, including our seed-eating feeder visitors, prey on insects and spiders when they are feeding their young and need lots of protein. No humans complain.

Conversely, some of the birds that we would consider meat eaters occasionally pick up the odd seeds or berries.

But, looking through my copy of Kenn Kaufman’s Lives of North American Birds, I found plenty of birds that eat only non-plant material: some of the grebes, all of the seabirds, pelicans, herons, cormorants, egrets, osprey, hawks, falcons, eagles, some shorebirds, many gulls, all of the terns, owls, nighthawks, swifts, most of the swallows and wrens, the dipper, both shrike species and some of the warblers—and warblers are the quintessential songbird!

Granted, warblers are eating insects and although insects are animals, their deaths don’t seem to bother many people.

The day after I wrote the rough draft of this column, the dog and I, leaving for a walk around the neighborhood, witnessed a sharp-shinned hawk doing acrobatics a few feet over the driveway, fighting to hang on to a starling. There are so many of those invasive starlings that this seemed like a good thing, except that our feeders remained unvisited for the next six hours due to hawk fright. Oh well.

We who feed birds do so for our own enjoyment, to bring wild birds in close to us. I think if we are very lucky, we feed a hawk or two.

Since all of us feeding birds don’t put out the same seed, I wonder if the hawks notice what their prey species have been eating. I can hear it now. “Ah, I just enjoyed a Gorges free-range, sunflower seed-fed sparrow!”