Rx Burn for Birds

Written by Debby de Carlo/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Sandhill cranes and other birds wintering to the south will be flying north to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the months ahead. Many will stop, rest and refuel at the refuge.

Refuge wildlife biologist Ed Sparks and others on the Refuge staff are already making sure there will be places for migrating birds. “Bulrush and other perennials don’t get enough sunlight in the spring as the tops die off and get matted.” Those areas are less productive, Sparks noted. “By burning bulrush, we hit the reset button. The roots don’t burn, but the rest of the grass does, allowing sunlight to get through and createnew growth.”

This year, Dan Yturriondobeitia, Forestry Technician for the Refuge will be at work burning an area of about 1700 acres on the Double O Ranch. “There’s bulrush, cattail and native meadow grasses,”  Yturriondobeitia explained. By opening it up, nutrients are released for deer and antelope. “We plan on doing the burn in February just before nesting birds arrive.”

Yturriondobeitia and his fellow fire manager Shane Theall use drip torches to set the fires, making sure conditions are just right. Relative humidity and winds are factors. They use a computer program to tell them when the time is optimal.  Still, even with such technology, it’s only a guide, he said. “Conditions are dynamic.”Fire trucks are on hand just in case the wind kicks up, and the area mowed as well, making sure neighboring property is safe.Part of the prep is meeting with RefugeMaintenance staff. “They identify things we don’t want to burn like fish traps. They let us use a lot of their tractors,” Yturriondobeitia added.

“Fighting fires evolves,” he continued. “We use best practices.” In fact, Yturriondobeitia worked at a desk job in Boise for a while, where he helped design new equipment. But he missed being outside, and so, he and other staff will be on the ground later this month, creating resting–and nesting– areas for the birds to come.

Double-crested Cormorants

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Double-crested cormorants (Phalcrocorax auritus), widespread across North America, are goose-sized waterbirds that feed predominantly on fish captured via surface diving. They are the most abundant of Oregon’s three cormorant species, found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. Their common name refers to the twin white head plumes worn by adults during the breeding season.

Cormorants’ dark, prehistoric appearance and voracious appetites have long given them a malign connotation among humans, especially those that perceive the birds as a direct competitor for fish. The name itself comes from the Latin words “corvus” and “marīnus”, meaning “sea-raven”; for centuries the word “cormorant” was used to describe someone that was gluttonous or greedy.

In North America, prior to passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, humans persecuted double-crested cormorants at will. The scourge of DDT in the 1950s took an additional toll, and by the 1970s populations of this bird had plummeted across much of the U.S.

Despite these setbacks, cormorants proved remarkably resilient and adaptable. Regulatory protection, coupled with the 1972 banning of DDT in the U.S., led to an incredible resurgence in double-crested cormorant populations: In the Great Lakes region alone, the breeding population went from around 200 pairs in the early 1970s to 115,000 by 2000.

Today, cormorants across the country are thriving, and their ever-growing need for fish is coming into direct conflict with the interests of commercial fisheries, aquaculturists, anglers and more. In some cases federally threatened and endangered fish species are also targeted by cormorants. Wildlife authorities at the state and federal level now find themselves in the ironic and unenviable position of needing to “control” cormorant populations to protect fish, including captive-reared fish destined for human consumption.

Thus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services and state wildlife agencies, has developed policies aimed at addressing human-cormorant conflicts in the foreseeable future. These policies include authorizing an annual “take” of cormorants—by culling adults or oiling eggs—to reduce pressure on fish stocks without significantly affecting cormorant populations.

Read the latest updates on USFWS policy regarding double-crested cormorant management here.

Save the Eagles Day

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Today is National Save the Eagles Day, recognizing a lasting commitment made by scientists, lawmakers and the public to protect America’s wildlife and wildlands from human-caused harm. The bald eagle—national bird of the United States, found across the country—was once an endangered species. In the 1950s, bald eagle populations had dropped to just 412 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. The culprits? Habitat loss and the widespread use of an insecticide known as DDT.

Developed in the 1940s-50s to combat mosquitoes and fleas during World War II, DDT was later sprayed on agricultural fields to kill crop pests. Environmental exposure degraded the insecticide into other chemicals, some of which interfered with calcium carbonate production in shell-based organisms such as crustaceans, mollusks, and egg-layers like birds. Small amounts of these chemical byproducts were retained in prey animals’ bodies, accumulating in predators until they reached harmful levels. The result for eagles and other predatory birds was eggshell thinning: eggs would break under the weight of the incubating parent, killing the nascent chick.

The precipitous decline of eagles, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons and other prominent birds during this period led to the United States’ banning of DDT in 1972, followed by the passing of the Endangered Species Act a year later. Coupled with habitat restoration and captive breeding programs, these efforts brought bald eagles and other species back from the brink, and today they are thriving. Their story reminds us that while humans are capable of inflicting great and sometimes unwitting harm on the natural world, we are also capable of righting those wrongs.

The bald eagle is resident throughout North America and can be found in almost every region of Oregon. With their distinctive white head and yellow beak—and incongruous, tittering call—these enormous birds stand out. The bald eagle’s wingspan can reach up to eight feet across, and its disheveled stick-built nest can weigh more than a ton. Listed as an endangered species until 2007, bald eagles are increasing in number across the country, becoming almost plentiful in some areas. At Malheur Refuge, bald eagles are most numerous in the winter, when they congregate near Malheur and Harney lakes to prey on waterfowl.