Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, December 21, 2018

Contact:  Brian Segee, (805) 750-8852,

Imperiled Western Songbird to Get Protected Critical Habitat 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Severely Threatened by Dams, Livestock, Climate Change

DENVER— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today agreed to designate critical habitat for the western yellow-billed cuckoo, marking a victory in a Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit seeking stronger protections for the threatened songbird. 

In 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed 546,336 acres of critical habitat for the cuckoo in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Colorado and other western states. But the agency never finalized the designation.

“This victory will provide an essential safety net for these beautiful birds,” said Brian Segee, a Center senior attorney. “If yellow-billed cuckoos are to survive and recover in the western United States, we must protect the places they live. Species with protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as species without it.”

Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat is supposed to be designated at the time when a species is listed as threatened or endangered. Once it’s designated, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may “adversely modify” that habitat in a way that could interfere with the species’ recovery.

Today’s victory sets a deadline of Aug. 5, 2020 for a final rule designating critical habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo. A revised proposed critical habitat rule will be issued in August 2019, and will be subject to public comment.

The imperiled songbird once ranged widely in the western United States but has declined to as few as 350 pairs. The Center has worked for the birds’ protection for two decades, first submitting a scientific petition to list them under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. 

After more than a decade of delay, the Fish and Wildlife Service finally listed the western cuckoo as threatened in 2014. The agency also proposed the protection of more than half a million acres of the species’ critical habitat but failed to finalize the designation.

The yellow-billed cuckoo depends on healthy streamside areas for breeding, nesting and feeding. Its disappearance from vast expanses of its former habitat is due largely to damming of rivers, water withdrawal and livestock grazing. Climate change also threatens the cuckoo with increased drought. Pesticide use and collisions with communication towers and other tall structures further imperil the bird.

Critical habitat designation would help address these threats by requiring federal agencies to consult with the Service when their actions may result in damage or destruction of the bird’s habitat.

The western yellow-billed cuckoo winters in South America and summers in the western United States and parts of Mexico and Canada. Its range has drastically contracted with the species no longer occurring in most of the northern half of its range in the West.

Today the bird survives in scattered locations in small numbers, including along California’s Sacramento, Eel and Kern rivers; the Colorado, Gila, Verde and San Pedro rivers in Arizona; New Mexico’s Gila and Rio Grande rivers; and scattered locations in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, Wyoming and Utah. Historically it was common from the shores of Lake Washington in Seattle to the mouth of the Colorado River.

The cuckoo is a visually striking bird whose long tail has flashy white markings. It is one of few species that can eat spiny caterpillars, such as tent caterpillars, which adults and their chicks gorge on in spring and summer.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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