Bird Benefits

Western Tanager Courtesy & Copyright © 2010 Michael Fish
Western Tanager
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Michael Fish
Birds may not be as exciting as certain athletic events or blockbuster films, but have you ever considered the many benefits they provide to ecosystems and humans? They control insect and rodent populations; they eat weed seeds; they pollenate crops, flowers, fruits. They are a major food source, consider chickens, turkeys, game birds, water fowl, as well as their eggs. Falcons and hawks can help humans hunt for food. They are companion pets for many people…parakeets, canaries, parrots. They inspired the construction of airplanes.
Bird Houses Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Bird Houses
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Pigeons were often used to transport messages and medicines during war. Feathers were used as insulation for clothing and bedding as well as fashion accessories. Estimates of 20 billion dollars annually is spent by birdwatchers for travel, seed and feeders, binoculars and scopes, and so forth. Contests and competitions are done every year for racing pigeons and state fairs with a variety of species. They are beautiful subjects for photography and art forms. They are agents of seed dispersal, and some also feed on animal carcasses. Their waste products are used as agricultural fertilizer, and they are indicators of environmental health. In the 1990s, Mexico City’s air pollution problem was so bad birds fell dead from the sky. This initiated steps to improve air quality. There’s also peaceful serenity in listening to bird songs. Although some people may not appreciate the pre-sunrise songs of robins.

Two American Robins and a Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
Two American Robins and a
Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath
Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
So what can you do to help improve the bird habitat in your area? First, provide water year-round. A simple bird bath is a great start. Change water every 2 to 3 days in warm weather to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching, and use a heater in the winter. Place the water container about 10 feet from dense shrubs or other cover that predators might use. Select a variety of native plants to offer year-round food in the form of seeds, berries, nuts, and nectar. Try to recreate the plant ecosystem native to your area. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide excellent cover through all seasons if they are part of your local ecosystem. If your landscaping is complete, then put in bird feeders. Remove invasive plants from your wildlife habitat. Many out-compete the native species favored by birds, insects, and other wildlife. To find a list of invasive plants in your state, go to the cooperative extension office in your local area.

A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
Eliminate insecticides in your yard. Insects are the primary source of food for many bird species and are an important source of protein and fats for growing juvenile birds. Depending on your circumstances, leave standing dead trees, that are also known as snags, and they provide cavity dwelling places for birds to raise young and a source of insects for food. Many species will also seek shelter from bad weather inside of hollowed-out trees. Inspect your snags regularly though to make sure they do not present any safety hazards. Put out nesting boxes. Make sure the boxes have ventilation holes and drainage holes, and don’t use a box with a perch, because certain species are known to sit on a nesting box perch and peck at other birds inside the box.

And again, as a reminder, please keep your cats indoors. Domestic cats kill millions of birds every year. Birds help us, let’s help them.

This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images:
                Western Tanager, Courtesy & Copyright Mike Fish, Photographer
                Birdbath, Courtesy & Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
                Woodpecker, Courtesy US FWS
Text:     Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

What Do Birds Do for Us?, Barry Yeoman, National Audubon, 13 Apr 2013, http://www.audubon.org/news/what-do-birds-do-us

The Benefits of Birds, Dr Rin Porter, National Audubon, 27 Mar 2015, http://www.thingscouldbeworse.org/home/benefits-birds/

Burning for the birds at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Josh OConnor, regional fuels specialist, March 21, 2014
https://www.fws.gov/southeast/articles/burning-for-the-birds-at-piedmont-national-wildlife-refuge

The End of Royalty?

Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber Posted on February 14, 2017
Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber
Posted on February 14, 2017

It was a spectacular scene that no living person has ever witnessed. John James Audubon said the sun would literally be blocked out for hours as the river of living creatures flew by from sunrise to sunset. Estimates place their population up to five billion. That’s FIVE BILLION. They represented 40% of all the living Class of Aves in North America and may have been the most abundant bird species in the entire world. They reached speeds over 60 miles per hour, and when flocks came to rest in forests their collective landings could topple large trees. They seemed invincible.

But in the 1870’s, European-Americans used shotguns which dropped dozens of Passenger Pigeons with each shot. They commercialized them as cheap food, sold their feathers to adorn hats, and cut down nesting-area forests.

As the birds began to disappear, measures were made to prevent their total loss. Several groups were captured and put in captivity, but breeding was unsuccessful. In 1901 the last wild “invincible” pigeon was shot. In 1914, the very last Passenger Pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. They are gone. Five Billion then, zero now.

Monarch Butterflies, 250x353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterflies, 250×353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We may be currently experiencing something of that depressing magnitude as we continue to record a consistent decline in the populations of once plentiful Monarch Butterflies. Adults may recall capturing the yellow-black-white striped larva from milkweeds in fields and along roadsides throughout Cache Valley. They would keep them in jars until the larva had its miraculous morphing, then release the dazzling orange and black flying flowers that everyone seemed to love. Unless humans take positive actions now, many newborn children may never have that butterfly-in-a-jar experience.

Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

I started tagging and releasing Western Monarchs at South Cache back in 1995. A harmless tag was placed on the front wing in hopes of tracking it to its overwintering site. We did hundreds at first, but each year larva was more difficult to find. Nibley’s Becky Yeager reigns as the Monarch tagging Queen, and she works tirelessly to preserve the species.

In December, six of us decided to investigate the Monarch sites in California listed by the Xerces Society. We went to each site from Santa Barbara along the coast up to Santa Cruz. We should have seen a quarter million Monarchs, but barely observed two thousand total.

Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go,
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

In 1997, California had 100 counting sites and observed well over one million Monarchs.
In 2016 they increased counting sites to 250, but the population has dropped to less than 300,000. If five billion pigeons can disappear, what are the odds of success for Monarchs?

Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We can do something about this. Plant milkweed, the only plant where they lay eggs. Use fertile, native plants in your flower gardens. Stop spraying pesticides. Let the Cache Valley Wildlife Association tag whatever Monarchs you might collect this summer. And join us at the Logan Gardeners’ Market for a Mariposa Festival on May 20.

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

Credits:

Images: Courtesy &
Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern

For Information On Tagging:
The Monarch Program: http://www.monarchprogram.org
To tag butterflies found in Cache Valley, please contact Monarch Program volunteer Ron Hellstern at 435-245-9186. Please note that captive caterpillars or chrysalises are easiest to tag, as capturing adults can harm their wings.

Growing milkweed:

Monarch Watch, Propagation (Growing Milkweeds). http://www.monarchwatch.org/milkweed/prop.htm
Additional Reading:

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Butterflies, North America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.
Monarch Watch: Monarch Life Cycle. http://monarchwatch.org/biology/cycle1.htm

National Geographic: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/monarch-butterfly/

NRCS Partners with Farmers, Ranchers to Aid Monarch Butterflies, Posted by Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, on November 12, 2015, USDA Blog, http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/11/12/nrcs-partners-with-farmers-ranchers-to-aid-monarch-butterflies/

Beaver–Helping Keep Water on Drying Lands

Beaver, Castor canadensis, Courtesy US FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Beaver
Castor canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Beginning as early as the 17th century, beavers have struggled to find safe places to build their homes.

Initially, hunters trapped beaver extensively to keep up with the popular beaver fashions in Europe.

Then as settlers began moving west, they considered the beavers annoying because of their tendency to cause flooding and damage trees – so the trapping continued.

However, today in many parts of the American West, the beaver’s 400-year-old struggle is fading, because of their ability to keep water on dry land in an efficient manner.

While beavers may not be welcome in most city limits, ranchers and wildlife managers are re-introducing them to rural areas where the benefits of their dams far outweigh the inconveniences.

Tanner Ranch Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
Grouse Creek Area
Location of the Tanner Ranch
Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
One such place is the Della Ranches in west Box Elder County, where the Tanner family has been ranching for six generations. The ranch is located in a remote part of the state and has some of the best intact sagebrush habitat in Utah with strong populations of sage grouse and mule deer.

Most of the precipitation on the ranch, which averages less than 12 inches a year, comes as snow during winter and rain in April and May. By the end of the summer, the majority of the streams have dried up.

Having a sustainable water supply is an ongoing concern for the Tanners. They are searching for ways to keep water on the land throughout the summer.

Jay Tanner explains, “I considered building a reservoir or pond but it would be expensive, require quite a bit of maintenance, and permits. Beaver dams on the other hand are inexpensive, sustainable, and self-maintained.”

Kent Sorenson, habitat biologist from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources described the financial benefit of the beavers, “[When beaver manage the dams] our operation and maintenance costs go to zero — they do all the work. They are 24/7 – 365-day maintenance crews that do not require a Corps of Engineers 404 permit.

Installing a pressure transducer (inside the white pvc pipe) which is used to measure flow. Restoration treatments are assessed through monitoring water flows. Courtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
Installing a pressure transducer (inside the white pvc pipe) which is used to measure flow. Restoration treatments are assessed through monitoring water flows.
Courtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
When Jay Tanner learned of the potential benefit of beavers, he drove to Utah State University and met with scientists and researchers who had experienced success in restoring beavers in the west.

Eric Thacker, Rangeland Management Extension Specialist at USU said, “A beaver dam provides a buffer or mitigation for drought.”

Once the dams are established, they keep the water on the land. This is beneficial to fish, wildlife and livestock.

Sage-grouse hens like to gather with their chicks in the wet meadows by beaver dams, where they can find plenty of insects and vegetation for their chicks.

After further discussions with USU, the Tanners entered into a multi-year partnership with the Quinney College of Natural Resources and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to reintroduce beaver to their ranch.

Currently, all involved are working to make the streams and surrounding area appropriate for new beaver families. Once the areas are ready and the correct permits are in place, UDWR will capture a beaver pair, keep them in quarantine for the appropriate amount of time then introduce the beavers to a stream on the Tanner Ranch

Reintroducing a beaver couple instead of a single beaver is essential for the success of the project. They are social critters. Beaver will leave the location and go searching for a partner if they are not re-introduced with one.

In an established beaver dam, you will likely find monogamous parents with their babies called “kits”, their yearlings, and extended families.

Joseph Wheaton, Associate Professor in the department of Watershed Sciences and Principal Investigator on the project said, “If [this] project is successful, the implications are huge for instream and riparian restoration throughout the state of Utah as beaver are potentially an extremely cost-effective form of restoration…”

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Hillebrand, photographer
Photo: CCourtesy and Copyright Scott Shahverdian, Photographer
Photo: Courtesy and Copyright Eric Thacker, Photographer
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Wildlife Notebook Series No. 24,
http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=download&item=56529

UTAH BEAVER MANAGEMENT PLAN 2010–2020, Developed with the Beaver Advisory Committee, DWR Publication 09-29, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, 2010, https://wildlife.utah.gov/furbearer/pdf/beaver_plan_2010-2020.pdf

WATS 6860 – Partnering with Beaver in Restoration Design, University Catalog 2017-2018, Utah State University, http://catalog.usu.edu/preview_course_nopop.php?catoid=12&coid=93002

Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems. Joe Wheaton, Assistant Professor, Utah …, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62A3RqL7Xp8

WEBINAR: Cheap and Cheerful Stream Riparian Restoration with Beaver. Joe Wheaton …
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1uysDrOI_w

Beaver Restoration Workshop, Partnering with Beaver in Restoration, http://beaver.joewheaton.org/

Webinar: Cheap & Cheerful Stream Restoration – With Beaver? http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/beaver-news-annoucements/webinarcheapcheerfulstreamrestoration-withbeaver

Science Unwrapped Talk by Joe on Beaver
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/beaver-news-annoucements/scienceunwrappedtalkbyjoeonbeaver

Videos & Movies
http://beaver.joewheaton.org/beaver-links/videos-movies

Joe Wheaton – Beaver: Restoration liaison between riparian and upland systems
https://forestry.usu.edu/videos-conferences-webinars/conferences/restoring-west-conference-2013/joe-wheaton

Dr. Joseph Michael Wheaton, Watershed Sciences, Associate Professor, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory/wheaton_joseph
Utah Water Watch, Beaver Monitoring App, http://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/citizenscience/beavermonitoringapp/

Beaver Dam Mapping App Now Available for Citizen Scientists, http://www.exploreutahscience.org/science-topics/environment/item/148-citizen-scientists-can-now-use-an-app-to-help-map-beaver-dams-in-utah

Zion National Park Human-Ringtail Interactions

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US FWS, San Andres NWR
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Within Zion national park, there is a small, little known creature named the ringtail. It is related to the raccoon and is completely nocturnal. With big eyes, bigger ears, and a black and white striped tail, they seem like a fairy tale critter. However, they are very real, albeit elusive and extremely smart. They are about the size of a house cat and spend their time hunting for mice, lizards, bird eggs, and insects while also foraging for berries and seeds. They are quite adaptable mammals, changing their diet to suit their surroundings. They can be found throughout the southwest and western coastal states from Oregon to Texas, in all sorts of habitats. However, they are rarely seen, so their presence in the desert of southern Utah usually goes unnoticed. Many residents of southern Utah don’t even know that ringtails exist, let alone live in their back yard.

A relatively large population of ringtails exist in Zion National Park, one of the most heavily traveled national parks in the US. Last year, alone, over 3.6 million people visited the park. Those tourists and visitors often eat packaged and pre-cooked foods while in the park, disposing of their trash in proper receptacles or, rather irresponsibly, along trails and campgrounds. This creates ample opportunities for ringtails to gain access to human food, such as trashcans, and may encourage them to forage for food around campsites and visitor lodging. This behavior is a problem for the guests and employees of Zion National Park, but it is also extremely problematic for the ringtails in this area.

Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus), Photo Courtesy US BLM
Ringtail (Bassariscus astutus)
Photo Courtesy US BLM
© Lee Dittmann, Photographer
The consumption of human foods and trash items are creating a significant shift in the composition of the diets of ringtails in this park. Researchers at Utah State University collected scats from ringtails in the park to analyze what they were eating. While the scats collected far from human buildings and activity showed the diet that is expected for wild ringtails in this area (e.g. insects, plant material, and some small rodent remains), the scats collected around and inside human buildings told a much more disconcerting story. There was trash and non-digestible food items present in over a third of the scats collected. These items perhaps could be due to the wrappings of human food, such as napkins, or they could be a byproduct of trying to gain access to the food, such as eating foil candy bar wrappers. A lot of human food is accessed through improperly sealed trash containers, poor food storage in campsites and cabins, and potentially hand feeding, all of which put the ringtails at risk for dietary problems, behavioral problems, and possibly death.

The ringtails are also coming towards buildings in the communities around Zion National Park, such as Springdale and Rockville, to seek easy shelter in the colder months, something that is not necessary for their survival. Properly sealing homes, particularly attics, in the areas where ringtails occur will prevent the ringtails from entering the living spaces of humans, and gaining access to food items dangerous to them. It will also prevent the homeowner from dealing with the aftermath of having a ringtail take up residence in an attic or crawlspace. Any hole larger than 2″ in diameter is enough to allow an adult male ringtail to enter. Surveying a house’s foundations and siding each fall to identify any such holes, and fill them in, can go a long way toward preventing ringtails from entering a home; helping ringtails practice healthy, wild behavior.

Ringtails are a certainly a wildlife sighting to remember, but make sure you only see them on their terms. Always properly store, prepare, and dispose of food items when in areas with wildlife. It protects you and it protects them, making sure your experience in natural areas remains a positive one.

Credits:
Images:   Courtesy US FWS
               Courtesy US BLM & Copyright © Lee Dittmann, Photographer
Text:        Adrian Roadman, Nicki Frey and Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Read by:  Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Credits:    Adrian Roadman and Nicki Frey

Additional Reading: