Audubon works to help birds whose numbers are falling

LAS VEGAS -- A small, tawny bird hopped across the path at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve just after sunrise, then quickly vanished into the thick quail brush.

Called an Abert's towhee, it is one of 200 birds recently named to the National Audubon Society's list of birds in trouble or in decline, 24 of which spend at least part of the year in Southern Nevada.

Besides the preserve, many of the birds can be seen in various parks and even residential back yards.

The Audubon list is a mix of birds facing different challenges, said Don McIvor, who last year took the newly created job of Audubon Society director of bird conservation for Nevada.

Some bird species already have come to the federal government's attention as in danger of extinction, while others face less severe threats.

The idea behind the list is to encourage people to learn about the birds, and to help guide policy to reduce the danger to their habitats, said McIvor, who works out of Carson City.

"By the time most species get on the endangered list, they're nearly hanging by a thread," he said. "So Audubon's list is intended to try and head off getting to this point ... by raising awareness about the birds."

A survey recently released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows 545,000 people spent time in Nevada observing, feeding, or photographing wildlife in 2001 -- including birds. People are estimated to have spent more than $250 million on these activities.

McIvor also works to identify areas statewide where bird habitats already are in place and can be easily maintained, so officials are aware of them when planning growth.

The Las Vegas Wash near Lake Mead is an example, he said.

John Hiatt, conservation director for the Red Rock Audubon Society, works in Southern Nevada to draw attention to the birds on the list.

"Virtually every bird can tell us a message about the environment," Hiatt said after the Abert's towhee sighting at the preserve.

The two dozen-plus birds on the list carry with them warnings about several types of habitats in the Las Vegas area, Hiatt said.

The towhee, for example, lives only in small swatches of Arizona, Nevada and Southern California -- home to some of the nation's fastest-growing cities.

It favors dense shrubs or trees near water, and as cities grow and riparian habitats are broken up or damaged, the towhee's population dwindles.

The willow flycatcher is another example. As its name suggests, it depends on willow trees, along with cottonwoods, for nesting and feeding. Both trees grow near water.

In Nevada and neighboring states, the bird's population has diminished, causing a Western subspecies to be considered endangered since 1995. The chief threats it faces are ongoing changes to the Colorado River -- including its dams -- and the spread of a nonnative tree called salt cedar, which pushes out willows and cottonwoods.

The tree's feathery, tiny leaves give it a delicate appearance that have made it a favorite for homeowners since it was first brought from Asia to Arizona about a century ago. But those leaves are naturally salty, and when they fall to the ground and decompose, they increase the salinity of the soil.

One way of raising awareness about the birds on the Audubon list is helping people spot them, McIvor said.

Perhaps the easiest bird to see on the list is also among the smallest -- the rufous hummingbird, which is attracted to Clark County backyard feeders from mid- to late summer, he said.

The brightly colored bird is in decline, possibly due to loss of habitat and pesticide use, according to the Audubon Society.

Another bird, the Lewis' woodpecker, is found around cottonwoods trees on Lake Mead. It has seen a 60 percent population decline during the past 40 years due to some of the same threats faced by the rufous hummingbird.

"The average person can do a lot to get to know the birds around them," Hiatt said.

"And then we have to make a decision collectively about whether we want any of this wildlife, and do we want to live as part of nature, or apart from nature. Most people are not aware they have a choice."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends creating backyard habitats, which includes planting native plants that bear berries or attract insects. Bird feeders, bird baths and ponds also attract birds. Controlling weeds without pesticides, or with low-impact pesticides, helps reduce a common threat to many birds.


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