Feds propose adding rare Nevada songbird to endangered species list

A rare songbird found along waterways in Nevada and on the Colorado River has been proposed for listing as an endangered species.

The yellow-billed cuckoo once thrived across the West, but it is now confined to a few scattered parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

“In Nevada it’s a pretty rare bird at this point,” with fewer than 10 breeding pairs known to frequent the Virgin and Muddy Rivers, Pahranagat Valley and Lahontan Reservoir, said Noah Greenwald from the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s one of many species that are in danger because of the degradation of rivers in the West.”

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service will announce the proposed listing Thursday with a notice in the Federal Register.

The yellow-billed cuckoo is a robin-sized songbird with a long tail, flashy white markings and brightly colored beak. The bird is often called a “rain crow” for its habit of singing right before storms. It spends the winter in South America and flies north to the American Southwest to breed and nest from June through September.

The cuckoo could join another Colorado River bird, the Southwest willow flycatcher, on the endangered species list within the next year. First, though, the Fish & Wildlife Service proposal will be subject to review by researchers and input from the public.

Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the cuckoo needs pretty much the same thing the flycatcher does: the restoration of riparian forests of willow and cottonwood that once dominated Western rivers before the landscape was changed by farming, ranching, residential development and the construction of dams.

The Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group has pushed — and even sued — for protection of the cuckoo since the late 1990s. The bird has been a candidate for endangered species listing since 2001.

The Center for Biological Diversity also had a hand in convincing federal officials to add the Mount Charleston blue butterfly to the endangered species list last month.

In a move related to the cuckoo’s plight, the center filed a lawsuit Monday against several federal agencies over the release of a specialized beetle to curb the spread of invasive tamarisk plants along the Colorado River and its tributaries. The program was halted in 2010 after a previous lawsuit by the center, but environmentalists contend that federal officials have failed to monitor the beetles’ spread and restore areas where the bugs killed off tamarisk, leaving nowhere for imperiled birds to nest.

Greenwald said saving the cuckoo, flycatcher and other threatened species along the Colorado and elsewhere ultimately will be “good for rivers and good for people.”

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You can recreate willow and cottonwood habitat. All it takes is some effort, even with dams in place.”

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow him, @RefriedBrean, on Twitter.

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