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March 16, 2005
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Cowbird

Audubon Society web site on Cowbirds

At an oasis known as Warm Springs nestled in the shade of several large trees there's a small odd looking cage. It's been here for the better part of the spring and early summer. On this particular day Darren Williams, of the Dept of Agriculture as well as Cris Tomlinson, and Carrie Ransom, of the Nevada Division of Wildlife are visiting the cage for the last time this year. Once they've processed the birds captured here the cage will be dismantled and stored until the project starts up again next year. As Darren prepares to open the door so that they can enter I can't help but remark on the ingenious construction of the cage.

David Bert... It's a box, except that on the top rather than going straight across it slants down, and in the middle you've got a board with slots in it.

Darren Williams, Dept of Agriculture... Yeah. That's for the birds to access the cage. What happens is there's birdseed or bait that's spread on top of the board that attracts the birds in. There's baited birds inside the trap to begin with, there's birdseed on the platform that also attracts them. They'll come in and eat the birdseed. When the birdseed's gone they'll come through the slots in the platform to access the cage. That's how they get in the cage. It's designed so they cannot leave through the slats because they have to fly vertically up, and gravity makes it impossible for them to fold their wings to come back up through the slots the same way. So that traps them in the cage.

David Bert... So it's a fairly benign capture.

Darren Williams... Sure, it's completely passive.

As the team begins the process of catching, identifying, tagging, and releasing the birds captured here one bird is a bit louder in its protests than the others. It's the cowbird.

Most people wouldn't even recognize the cowbird. Even it's unique mating call goes unnoticed by most people. But its place in the environmental scheme of things has caused a few government agencies to want to know more about this bird.

Cris Tomlinson, Nevada Division of Wildlife...''Male brown headed cowbird. You can really see the brown head. It stands out from the black body.''

Traditionally the cowbird has been a roamer. Not in the sense of migrating, but because they used to follow the herds of buffalo as they roamed the plains. They lived off of the insects that the bison would kick up during their travels. But because they were constantly on the move they had no time to settle down, build a nest and raise their young. So they developed the parasitic trait of removing an egg from a native species of bird and replacing it with one of their own. The unsuspecting bird would then raise the young cowbird. Sometimes to the detriment of its own young.

Darren Williams...''Female cowbird number 34. She was one of the baited birds in the trap''. That bird right there that was just released has been in this trap for I believe about two months. You can see that she's very hesitant to leave.

And even though the cowbird isn't native to the muddy river area it's not likely that it's going to leave there either. The cows at local dairy farms serve the same purpose that the buffalo did many years ago in their native home. So they migrated to this area and adapted to it. The problem is that there are other native species of birds like the Vermilion Flycatcher that are fighting for their very existence. It's difficult to say why these species are losing the battle. It could be any number of reasons. But one of them may be the cowbird. That's why the Multi Species Habitat Conservation Program was started.

Darren Williams... What we'll do is catch them, we'll band them, we'll process the data and then we'll release the birds. And when we recapture the banded birds then we record that data also. And when the project's done we'll be able to take that data and get an average population size using this marked-recapture method.

There is so much that we need to learn about our environment and how we fit into it. What impacts are we having on the land, the flora, and the fauna that were here before us and have come after our arrival. When I asked Darren Williams if we could just leave things alone and let them go back to the way they were meant to be he said that it's too late for that. We've already stirred the pot was how he put it. We have no idea where things were headed when we started impacting this environment. Our only hope at this point is to try and manage our natural resources to the best of our abilities. And that's what Darren, Cris, and Carrie are doing out here. Trying to gather enough data to make informed decisions on how we can best steward the world around us.

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