Mountain Lions Are Keystone Providers for Birds!

Mountain Lions Are Keystone Providers for Birds: Mountain Lion, (Felis concolor,) Courtesy US FWS, Larry Moats, Photographer
Mountain Lion
Felis concolor
Courtesy US FWS
Larry Moats, Photographer

Cougar or Mountain Lion(Felis concolor). Courtesy US FWS Cougar or Mountain Lion
Felis concolor
Courtesy US FWS

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, (Coccyzus americannus,) Courtesy and Copyright Eric Peterson, Photographer Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Coccyzus americannus
Courtesy & © Eric Peterson, Photographer

When we think about World Migratory Bird Day, we often think about providing for their needs with water, bird feeders, and native plants, and hopefully we are keeping cats indoors and taking steps to prevent the lethal danger of window-collisions. We may even think about the importance of sponge city landscaping and beaver dams to slow and store snowmelt runoff, but it is the Mountain Lion which has the unique distinction of being a keystone provider ranked as the top vertebrate feeder of birds – in fact they “feed more mammals and birds than any other predator, increasing the number of animal interactions – the links in food webs so essential to maintaining ecosystem resilience. And they are ecosystem engineers on top of this as well.”
(1) Researchers have found that large carcasses create essential habitat for carrion-dependent beetles – these are not just food for beetles, but the very places beetles spend their lives, hiding from predators, seeking mates, raising young, and morphing from larvae [lahr-vee] into adult forms which disperse in search of the next carcass to begin the cycle all over again. (2)The food web gets to the very heart of bird migration, and the very real challenge of ensuring a future in which people and birds can thrive with dwindling habitat resources essential for survival.

Consider the Yellow-billed Cuckoo [koo-koo], one of the World Migratory Bird Day Ambassador species, to highlight the importance of water and riparian habitat for birds. A long-distance migrant, the Yellow-billed Cuckoo breeds in the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, and migrates through Central America to reach its wintering grounds in South America. It seeks wooded habitats with water nearby, where it feasts mostly on insects, especially caterpillars, during the spring and summer, transitioning to a more fruit- and seed-heavy diet in the fall and winter.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo was selected for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day campaign to help shed light on the decline of riparian habitats along our rivers, streams, and freshwater lakes, particularly in the American West, where species that rely on these areas are experiencing population declines and are in possible danger of extirpation from some states. These western riparian species include Summer Tanager, Yellow Warbler, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Loss of native forest to farmland, housing, and other development has led to significant population declines in these species, especially in the case of the Cuckoo, which relies on large patches of streamside forest for breeding.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is becoming an increasingly rare bird in the American West. We need to increase awareness and encourage decision makers to explore ways to protect riparian areas, remove invasive species, restore habitat, and conserve water. World Migratory Bird Day 2023 aims to contribute to these efforts by highlighting the importance of water conservation and habitat management for migratory birds, and by providing resources to help promote these important issues. Bird Day is every day, but especially mid-May and mid-October. Learn more at, and learn more about how to conserve water for sustaining bird life!

I’m Hilary Shughart with the Bridgerland Audubon Society, and I am Wild About Utah!

Images: Mountain Lion images Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service, Larry Moats, Photographer
     Yellow-beaked Cuckoo, Courtesy & Copyright, Eric Peterson, VikingPhotographyUtah
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver,
Text: Hilary Shughart, President, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading: Hilary Shughart and Lyle Bingham,

Additional Reading

WildAboutUtah pieces by Hilary Shughart,

In research recently published in the prestigious journal, Oecologia, we show that mountain lions are ecosystem engineers that create essential habitat for carrion-dependent beetles. It is the first research to show that an apex predator plays the role of engineer. In collaboration with graduate researcher, Josh Barry, and Dr. Melissa Grigione at Pace University, we collected and identified 24, 209 beetles across 18 sites, representing 215 unique beetle species. The carcasses abandoned by mountain lions were not just food for beetles, but the very places beetles spent their lives, hiding from predators, seeking mates, raising young, and morphing from larvae into adult forms that dispersed in search of the next carcass to begin the cycle all over again.”
Barry, J.M., Elbroch, L.M., Aiello-Lammens, M.E. et al. Pumas as ecosystem engineers: ungulate carcasses support beetle assemblages in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Oecologia 189, 577–586 (2019).

Mountain Lions as Ecosystem Engineers,,, [Accessed April 29, 2023]

Mountain Lion Conservation,,, [Accessed April 29, 2023]

EOC 206: Mark’s Cougar Conundrum, Eyes on Conservation Podcast, [Accessed April 30, 2023]

Elbroch, Mark, The Cougar Conundrum, Sharing the World with a Successful Predator,, Island Press, August 2020, [Accessed April 30, 2023]

Panthera USA, [Accessed April 30, 2023]
Mark Elbroch, Ph.D., Panthera USA, [Accessed April 30, 2023], [Accessed April 29, 2023]

Wiggins, D. (2005, March 25). Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus): a technical conservation assessment.
[Online]. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available: [Apr 30, 2023].

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Coccyzus americanus, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University,

May 13 & October 14, World Migratory Bird Day 2023, WATER, UNEP/CMS Secretariat and UNEP/AEWA Secretariat,

Great Salt Lake Mirabilite Mounds

Mirabilite Mounds in the Great Salt Lake Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Mirabilite Mounds
in the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Back in October 2019, the ranger at the Great Salt Lake State Park began to notice a white mound forming on the sand flats behind the visitor center. The white mounds turned out to be hydrated sodium sulfate – known as mirabilite- which was being carried to the surface by the upwelling of a fresh water spring. Since the 1940’s geologists have known that in this area, 30 inches below the surface, there was a 3 – 6 foot thick shelf of mirabilite. They knew about the fresh water springs What was new was cold air. Since this stretch of sand was no longer underwater, the mirabilite carried to the surface stayed there as crystals, piling up on each other, puddling and spreading out. One mound rose to the height of 3 feet.

Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
When the mounds started to form again this winter, I jumped at the chance to to go and take a look. I must admit at first I was a little underwhelmed at the size, perhaps because the Kennecott Smelter Stack nearby dominates the view, rising to 1,215 feet – roughly the same height as the Empire State Building. But the park ranger got my attention when she told us that mirabilite mounds have only been seen in four places in the entire world – the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Central Spain, – and Utah. Just seeing them turns out to be a rare winter treat. When the air warms to 50 degrees, the mirabilite will crumble into a fine white powder and disappear.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
My mind flashed back to a trip I’d made to the other end of the lake ten years ago. I’d just graduated from the docent training class at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, and a friend and I wanted to celebrate by having High Tea at the center of the Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot, long, 15 foot wide coil of black basalt rock – a stunning example of land art jutting out from the northern shore. We’d been warned that it might be underwater, but when we arrived we were delighted to find we could easily walk to the very center of the spiral as the lake water gently lapped at the edges of our shoes. We clinked our tea cups, and toasted the greatness of the lake.

Suddenly I wanted to see the jetty again, so I hopped in my car and drove to the remote site. I saw the Spiral Jetty was now high and dry. Drifting sand had already started to bury parts of it. The water’s edge was now over 300 yards away. I thought of the millions of migratory birds that would be arriving in the spring to rest and feast on the tiny treasures of the lake, the brine shrimp. I hoped a smaller lake would still be enough for all of them.

The recent words of the director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Lynn de Freitas, rang in my head: “The Great Salt Lake is a gift that keeps on giving. Just add water.”

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text & Voice: Mary Heers, Generous Contributor, Utah Public Radio
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Mirabilite Spring Mounds Near Great Salt Lake Marina, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources,

Mirabilite,, Hudson Institute of Mineralogy,

Tabin, Sara, Rare salt formations return to Great Salt Lake’s shores; take a tour while they last, The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 13, 2021,

USGS 412613112400801 The Great Salt Lake at Spiral Jetty, Site Map for the Nation, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), U.S. Department of the Interior,

Case, William, GEOSIGHTS: PINK WATER, WHITE SALT CRYSTALS, BLACK BOULDERS, AND THE RETURN OF SPIRAL JETTY!, Survey Notes, v. 35 no. 1, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, January 2003,

Board & Staff, Friends of the Great Salt Lake,

Salt Lake Brine Shrimp,

The Bees and the Birds

The Bees and the Birds: The Bee Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
The Bee
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

The Bees and the Birds: The Bird [A Mallard Drake] Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer The Bird
[A Mallard Drake]
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

March is a thrilling month to be in an elementary school. Besides fifth grade maturation sessions, shamrocks pop up and many spotlight the impact of Dr. Seuss. Besides green eggs and ham eaten by children wearing tall red and white hats, we read and re-read books filled with fanciful characters and rhymes that roll off the tongue. I learned this year along with my students that Dr. Seuss’s father was the superintendent of parks in Springfield, Massachusetts, so naturally young Theodor took his sketchpad and pencil to observe and record whenever he could. When an animal lost an antler at the zoo, he would use it to craft a sculpture just as whimsical as the imaginative ones in his books. He called them pieces of The Seuss System of Unorthodox Taxidermy and placed them early in his career as promotional advertisements in bookshops. Kangaroo Bird with its teal stripes and pouch-perched hatchling and the Andulovian Grackler’s fur tufts and orange bill intrigue me. He also painted the stunning “The Birds and the Trees” featuring a white flock flying between red and pink palm trees that inspired the Dadake Day in “Oh the Thinks You Can Think.” As we studied Dr. Seuss’s “Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?” released 50 years ago this year, students noted how many birds appeared in the pages, leading us to do a Seuss bird scavenger hunt, our version of the birding counts chronicled in Mark Obmascik’s “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession” (that’s f-o-w-l).

I do know I was lucky to teach once on a fifth grade team with a man students called Mr. J. Among many other things, he taught them how to recognize and identify birds. He preserved a time each day to review birds they had learned and add facts about a new species, how it looks, how it sounds, and how it behaves. He could display photographs and even silhouettes; students knew the shapes enough to identify them. He could play short audio clips, and students shouted out the corresponding birds too. I’ve discovered since The Bird Song Hero app that provides a spectrogram showing pitches visually that allow people like me another way to memorize those various bird songs. I remember I popped in the day they were discussing how our loggerhead shrike impales insects, rodents, snakes, and lizards on fences and really anything sharp and off the ground. When we took them on the bus through the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, I couldn’t believe my ears as kids with binoculars and without them were confidently shouting, “I see…” and tallying on their clipboards. For weeks that spring I would find students at recess peering up in the sky above the schoolyard doing the same thing. When I marveled at this phenomenon, Mr. J. smiled. “You know, Shannon, it isn’t about the birds. It’s about being aware.”

So often his “It’s about being aware” mantra pops in my head, like it did this week when my students huddled around our class pet cage housing a bee that emerged early from my Crown Bee tube “free-bee” from a recent science-teaching conference. Just like Dr. Seuss’s Bee-Watcher-Watchers, these six- and seven-year-olds eagerly missed romping in the fresh powder playground to watch a bee perched on a strawberry. I’ve done the same thing, standing mesmerized, lost in thought, watching a bee on a western coneflower, repeating the Seuss rhyme “Just tell yourself, Duckie, you’re really quite lucky.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Friend Weller,
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah Pieces by Shannon Rhodes,

The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection. The Birds and the Trees.

The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection. The Bee-Watcher.

The Art of Dr. Seuss Collection. The Seuss Collection of Unorthodox Taxidermy.

Bird Song Hero.

Cane, Jim. The Native Bees of Utah. July 7, 2011. Wild About Utah.

Kervin, Linda. Shrikes. October 31, 2013. Wild About Utah.,with%20their%20thick%20hooked%20bill .

Newberry, Todd & Holtan, G. (2005). The Ardent Birder: On the Craft of Birdwatching. Random House LLC.

Obmascik, Mark. The Big Year. and

Seuss, Dr. Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? (1973). New York: Random House.

Seuss, Dr. Oh the Thinks You Can Think. (1975). New York: Random House.

Team Fishing White Pelicans

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Pelicans at the
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans Fishing at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers American White Pelicans Fishing
at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers

Jordan Falslev's Pelican Perch at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir, Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers Jordan Falslev’s Pelican Perch
at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir,
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers

I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in s straight line towards the waters edge, looking a lot like a tank division in in an old WWII movie I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back And then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.

Wow, I thought. These pelicans are working together to to drive the fish into the shallow water’s edge where they can easily scoop the up And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish

I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one lane auto route at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on.

As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill. When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to to scoop up as much as 3 gallons of fish and water. When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitively designed fishing net.

Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.

Back at the refuge I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That’s a 30 mile trip each way!

Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew – a Pole, a Russian, a Scot and an Englishman- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn’t profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks. The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the pop was estimated to be as high as 20,000.

Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn’t see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake have exposed a land bridge to Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.

You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. (Their wingspan is 10 ft. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in.) But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Music: Courtesy & Copyright © Anderson/Howe, Wakeman
Text: Mary Heers

Additional Reading

American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Management,

American White Pelican (AWPE), Aquatic Birds, Great Salt Lake Bird Survey 1997-2001, Utah Division of Wildlife Management,

Larsen, Leia, As Great Salt Lake shrinks, fate of nesting pelicans unknown, Standard Examiner, October 11, 2015,

Butler, Jaimi, The Great Salt Lake Is An ‘Oasis’ For Migratory Birds, Science Friday, September 21, 2018,

Hager, Rachel, Great Salt Lake Pelicans Under Threat, Utah Public Radio, May 28, 2018,

Leefang, Arie, Gunnison Island, Heritage and Arts, Utah Division of State History, September 16, 2019,

Hoven, Heidi, Gunnison Island: Home of up to 20,000 nesting American White Pelicans, Audubon California, National Audubon Society, September 25, 2017,