A river bird...
Swooping from a willow thicket to catch
insects over a desert stream, the southwestern willow flycatcher
is an image
grace and beauty. But the destruction of streamside forests
and introduction of exotic cowbirds have also made it one
of North America’s most endangered songbirds.
Four or five recognized flycatcher subspecies
live in North America. The desert southwest is home to
willow flycatcher, a sparrow-sized bird with a pale olive
contrasting white throat and pale yellow belly. The most
reliable way to distinguish this subspecies from others is
distinct "fitz-bew" song—a song that is sadly
becoming harder and harder for even the most ardent birder
...in search of a river
This migratory songbird has suffered a century of steady
decline. Strictly dependent on dense willows, cottonwoods
species found along southwestern rivers and streams, the
flycatcher has lost more than 90 percent of its habitat
to a combination
of livestock grazing, dams, water withdrawal, and urban
and agricultural sprawl. As its habitat is fragmented, the
is also made more vulnerable to nest parasitism by brown-headed
cowbirds and nest predation by other species.
Fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs of the southwestern willow
flycatcher remain throughout its range. Nine years of
nearly rangewide surveys (1993-2001) found a total of only
flycatcher territories spread across southern California,
Mexico and southern Colorado, Utah and Nevada. Those
breeding areas that support the largest number of flycatchers
in peril from fires, water projects, livestock grazing
of native habitats by introduced plant species.
Surveys have also shown that the breeding sites
are widely scattered and isolated, and most sites include
fewer than five breeding pairs. Because most flycatcher populations
are isolated, there is often little hope that populations
will be rescued by immigration from other populations.
In recent years, reservoirs have become a particularly
dangerous place for the southwestern willow flycatcher.
an abundance of water and dense vegetation, large flycatcher
populations have congregated at reservoirs such as Lake
Mead on the Colorado River and Lake Roosevelt on the Salt
These habitats have proven to be death traps, where efforts
to increase storage for the water-thirsty southwest have
led to proposal after proposal to flood flycatcher
The Center protects
the flycatcher—and its rivers
For over a decade, the Center for Biological Diversity
has taken a leading role in protecting the flycatcher. In
the Center authored a petition submitted by a coalition
of environmental groups to place the flycatcher on the
federal endangered species list. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
refused to process the petition, the Center filed a series
of lawsuits that forced the agency to list the flycatcher
as an endangered species and protect more than 600 miles
in California, Arizona and New Mexico as critical habitat.
The flycatcher was listed as endangered in February 1995.
years later, the Center won an injunction protecting a critical
flycatcher population at Lake Isabella, California until
extensive mitigation lands are purchased. In 1998 the Center
the U.S. Forest Service to remove cattle from several hundred
miles of rivers in Arizona and New Mexico, a move to restore
some of the delicate riparian habitat the flycatcher needs
to survive. The Center has also been actively involved in
research and management, producing a pivotal report on the
the species in 1998, participating in development of a federal
recovery plan, and presenting papers at scientific conferences.
But the habitat destruction
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued many take
permits since the bird was listed. Given the critical
status of the
flycatcher and ongoing threats to its habitat, the Center
will be involved in the fight to save the southwestern
and the riparian habitats it depends on for decades to