|Center for Biological Diversity||The
The Yellow-billed cuckoo is also called the Raincrow or Stormcrow because
its call heralds the coming of summer rains. This habit, combined with
its beauty and ability to eat enormous quantities of defoliating caterpillars,
has made the Yellow-billed cuckoo a popular bird in North America. Unlike
European cuckoos, it rarely lays its eggs in the nests of other birds.
It is a neo-tropical migrant which winters in South America. Before its
precipitous decline, it summered and bred in most of the United States,
southernmost Canada, and northern Mexico.
The cuckoo is one of the last
neotropical migrants to arrive in North America and has very little time
to build a nest, find a mate, lay its eggs and raise its young. To do
so, it has evolved a unique nesting strategy. It is able to time its egg
laying with outbreaks of insects (especially caterpillars) so that it
has a rich food source for itself and its young. Its incubation/nestling
period is the shortest of any known bird. Its egg develops rapidly, and
at hatching is one the heaviest of all North American songbirds. This
is because the chick will have very little rearing time before embarking
on its transcontinental migration- it must complete much of its development
while still in the egg and come out ready to go. The nestling are fledged
from the nest 6-7 days after hatching, and are off to South America at
three or four weeks of age.
Cuckoo Declines East & West
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo has
declined precipitously throughout its range in southern Canada, the United
States, and northern Mexico. It is nearly extinct west of the Continental
Divide having disappeared from British Columbia in the 1920's, from Washington
in the 1930's, from Oregon in the 1940's, and from northern-most California
in the 1950's. It is extremely rare in the interior West. Its only remaining
western "strongholds" are three small populations in California, scattered
populations in Arizona (especially on the San Pedro River) and New Mexico
(especially the Gila River), and an unknown number of birds in northern
Mexico. Click here to see a map of
the cuckoo's current and historic range in the West.
Though the cuckoo has faired better east of the Continental Divide, it is declining there rapidly as well, and will likely sink to western levels and eventual extinction if its habitat is not soon protected. According to Breeding Bird Survey data, Yellow-billed Cuckoos have suffered significant population declines in the last 33 years (1966-1999) in 14 of 29 eastern states with sufficient data to determine trends. The average decline was 54% for the 14 states, with some declines reaching 78 and 99%. The area and rate of decline is increasing over time: declines occurred in all 29 states between 1980-1996 and was statistically significant in 17. The average decline was 60% in this short, recent period. If the decline continues at its current rate for another 30 years, cuckoos will have declined by nearly 80% east of the Continental Divide between 1966 and 2026. If the current rate of decline continues for 100 years, cuckoos will be virtually if not completely extinct in large portions if not all of eastern North America. For a more detailed analysis of the breeding bird survey data, see the Centers report Yellow-billed Cuckoo Breeding Bird Survey Trends 1966-1999.
The cause of the cuckoo's demise
is the same threat facing most endangered species- habitat loss. In the
West, cuckoos are closely associated with broadleaf riparian (i.e. streamside)
forests. Logging, cattle grazing, dams, water diversions, and water pumping
have decimated the West's rivers and riparian forests, however, causing
over a hundred birds, fish, amphibians, and mammals to be listed as federally
endangered species. In most western states, 60-95% of the riparian forests
have been destroyed. East of the Continental Divide, the cuckoo faces
many of the same threats, but as the climate is generally more humid,
it is able to tolerate greater levels of habitat destruction. Its decline
in the East, therefore, was delayed, but is increasing rapidly.
Taking Action to Protect the Rain Crow
Recognizing that cuckoos would
soon be extinct in the West if action was not taken, environmentalists
filed a formal petition to list the cuckoo under the Endangered Species
Act in California, Oregon, and Washington in 1987. Despite a recommendation
to list the cuckoo as "endangered" from the West Coast region of the U.S.
Fish & Wildlife Service, the petition was rejected because of political
intervention by the Southwest region. More than one scientist lamented
the decision as death knell of the Raincrow in the West.
In order to get cuckoo protection back on track, the Center completed a comprehensive review of its status in 1997. In 1998 the Center filed a updated ESA petition with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. This petition called for listing cuckoos west of the Continental Divide as either a subspecies (i.e. the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo) or as a population which is geographically, morphologically, behaviorally, and ecologically distinct from cuckoo's east of the divide. In addition, the petition asked the Fish & Wildlife Service to list the entire species in North American because of ongoing declines east of the continental divide. Joining the Center on the petition where: Maricopa Audubon Society, Tucson Audubon Society, Huachuca Audubon Society, White Mountain Audubon Society, White Mountain Conservation League, Wildlife Damage Review, Sky Island Alliance, San Pedro 100, Zane Grey Chapter of Trout Unlimited, T and E Inc., Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Environmental Protection Information Center, Sierra Nevada Alliance, Wetlands Action Network, Rangewatch, Oregon Natural Desert Association, ONRC Fund, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Friends of Nevada Wilderness, and the Toiyabe Chapter of the Sierra Club, Wild Utah Forest Campaign, Sierra Nevada Alliance, Toiyabe Sierra Club.
When the Fish & Wildlife Service refused to process the petition, the Center filed suit to obtain a review and decision by the Service. On 2-17-00, the Fish & Wildlife Service published an initial finding that ESA protection may be needed for western cuckoos, either as subspecies or a unique population. Incredibly, however, it cast doubt on whether the extinction of the cuckoo from all of western North America would be biologically significant. If it concludes that it is not significant, the Service will refuse to list the western population. Just as bad, the Service refused to even consider listing the entire species as endangered throughout North America. Political considerations are once again influencing the agency's agenda. The fear of angering powerful industry and development interests is eclipsing the agency's commitment to reversing the decline of American songbirds.
Scientists Support Protection but Citizen Action is Necessary
A broad array of scientists have supported listing both the western subspecies and the entire species. On 4-14-00, twenty-two scientists including Dr. Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Dr. John Terborgh of the Duke University Center for Tropical Conservation, Dr. Reed Noss, President of the Society for Conservation Biology, Dr. David Dobkin of the High Desert Ecological Research Institute, Janice Hughes of the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Thomas Smith of the San Francisco State University Center for Tropical Research, Dr. Peter Stacey of the University of New Mexico, and Dr. Robert Ohmart of Arizona State University sent a letter to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asking that the cuckoo be listed as an endangered species. The most prominent cuckoo researcher in the western U.S., Dr. Stephen Laymon, prepared a lengthy report supporting the listing of the species and the subspecies. Other researchers conducted a genetic analysis determining that eastern and western populations have been separated for 410,000 to 460,000 years and likely warrant designation as separate subspecies.
Represented by Earthjustice, Center filed a second lawsuit against the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on 7-31-00 because the agency has already missed its next deadline for deciding whether to propose or deny ESA protection for cuckoo. The suit also asks a federal judge to order the agency to review the status of the entire species. The Center was joined in the suit by the Huachuca Audubon Society, Maricopa Audubon Society, ONRC Fund, Wetlands Action Network, Wildlife Damage Review, San Pedro 100, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Friends of the River, Sky Island Alliance, Oregon Natural Desert Association, and Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Our 60-day notice of intent to sue provides a more detailed overview of the legal and biological issues than the legal complaint.
With a little bit of luck and a good deal of citizen organizing, science and moral integrity will prevail over political intervention, and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and the riverside forests it depends on will begin the slow process of recovery. Overgrazing and excessive water pumping (especially on the San Pedro River) must stop, willows and cottonwoods must be replanted along ailing rivers and streams, invasive tamarisk trees must be removed, urban and agricultural sprawl must be controlled, and outdated dams must be removed. When this is done, we'll find the restored rivers are more inviting to humans and fish, as well as to Raincrows.
Other Center Actions to Protect Western Rivers, Deserts and Forests
The key to protecting the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is habitat protection. Over the last decade the Center has increased protection on a vast network of western streams, deserts and forests which will not only help the cuckoo, it will ensure enough habitat to protect thousands of species of birds, mammals, flower, reptiles, fish and amphibians. In the last decade, the Center has won protection for 121 species under the Endangered Species Act and the designation of 833,000 acres of land and 2,790 miles of river as federally protected “critical habitat". We have won proposals for the designation of another 68.8 million acres, including 1.81 million acres in California, 53.5 million acres in Alaska, and over 13.5 million in Arizona and New Mexico. By the end of 2001, we expect to have secured ESA protection for 129 species, 69.5 million acres of land, and over 4,000 miles of river. Though the Center's successes are unprecedented, so is the level of ecosystem destruction being wrought on the planet. In the long-run, we need to increase habitat protection a hundred fold to successfully protect and restore native biological diversity in the West.
to List Cuckoo as Endangered
STATUS IN SOUTHWEST AND CALIFORNIA
STATUS IN EAST
SCIENTIFIC SUPPORT FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT LISTING
Review by Dr. Stephen Laymon Supporting Listing of Cuckoos in East and
GENERAL SCIENTIFIC REVIEWS
for Biological Diversity: Yellow-billed Cuckoo Breeding Bird Survey Trends
July 28, 2000
Center for Biological Diversity