Eulogy for the Toler cottonwood trees
I’m told, the extermination of the majestic Frémont cottonwoods that came to be known as “the Toler trees,” should be complete. I’m sorry that we were late getting to the battleground, but then there was so little notice.
Hats off to all those people who pushed last-minute petitions and waved their hands on the roadside, who spoke out at peril of their jobs, who wrote letters, sent e-mails, made phone calls and spoke to commissioners. This Valley is lucky to have each one of you.
Why the fuss over some giant, old trees, you ask? As a longtime Carson Valley wildlife writer, teacher and advocate, I have endlessly talked about planting the “tallest trees you can afford” to people wanting to know how to attract wildlife to their yards and enhance their habitat.
The Carson Valley is widely known by birders nationwide for wintering raptors, and we’ve even been listed as an important bird area for Nevada. Our wide open fields, rife with rodents, insects and amphibians, coupled with the tall perching trees and relatively mild winter climate make this place an apparent Shangrila for birds of prey such as ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, barn owls, American kestrels, golden eagles, bald eagles, Cooper’s hawks, prairie falcons … and the list goes on.
Most of our raptors need tall trees to nest in … great horned owls start first and then the other raptors take over. As the Swainson’s hawks arrive from their long migration from Argentina, where this species is literally fighting for their survival due to pesticide use on their favorite food – grasshoppers and locusts – they make for the tall trees to begin to nest, usually returning to last year’s tree (if it’s there).
This last year, during our annual raptor census birding trip, Nevada bird expert Jack Walters and I noticed a couple of trends. For the first year in nearly a decade, Carson Valley’s ever-climbing red-tailed hawk numbers were down by about half, which may just be a normal population fluctuation, or worse, caused by habitat disturbances. On the bright side, this spring we saw an increase in Swainson’s hawks, but as the tall trees decrease in numbers, they’ll be forced to move on, or worse, not nest at all.
So the fuss about tall trees may be aesthetic and historic for us humans, but for our raptors and other birds (I haven’t even started with the herons and egrets), they can be deal breakers.
When I was writing View From Jacks Valley, a weekly wildlife column for this paper, for about four years in a row, every spring I would start to get letters and calls about a large, precarious raptor nest on Highway 395 just out of Minden on the east side of the road.
It was in a small tree, maybe 25 feet tall, and each spring a pair of red-tails would set up housekeeping there, right next to the busy highway.
People stopped to take pictures and the birds stayed, cars whizzed by all day and night, and the birds stayed. They fledged chicks and disappeared, much to the relief of all of us. But why would they nest there, people asked.
“They’re that desperate,” I told them.
Here is a species that prefers nosebleed heights away from people, a shy nesting bird (fairly gregarious otherwise), and they chose this pathetic tree. I don’t know what the mortality rate was from that tree, but eventually the nest did blow down, and last year they didn’t come back.
We all know that life moves on, that progress and growth are inevitable, especially in an enchanting place like Carson Valley, but for the wildlife we all cherish … that makes this place such a delight … “progress” may mean it’s time for them to move on to a place where tall trees are plentiful and can die a natural death.
It’s a consequence that builders should be willing to shoulder when they completely turn their backs on a community asking for a little heart when it comes to “progress.”
— Linda Hiller is a former writer and columnist for The Record-Courier and teaches birding at WNCC Douglas with her partner, Jack Walters