Coastal Post Online


February, 2003

West Nile Virus Heading This Way: Help The Birds!
By Karen Nakamura

According to those in the know, 2003 is the year West Nile virus should reach Northern California. Not only will this disease bring sickness and possible death to humans, it will wreck havoc on far too many of our already dwindling bird population. Happily, counts show sea birds are starting to recover despite the tragic setback in Santa Cruz a few years ago when close to a hundred pelicans impaled themselves on unseen fishing poles as they dove for sardines.

However, inland birds are another story and it's going to get worse with the onset of West Nile Virus. Already struggling from the loss of habitation and forage, feral cats and hungry predators, our quail, now almost extinct, blue jays, migrating robins, chickadees and so many other species of land bird are in grave danger. With spring 2003 fast approaching, what can we effectively do within the confines of our life and its demands? If we don't address this coming tragedy in our own backyards and with the help of our neighbors, 2004 could be Rachel Carson's Silence Spring

Obviously, to withstand the ravages of the virus, the entire bird population must be healthy and have readily available food and water sources. It must also have protection from predators and human destruction of habitant, especially for its nesting young. Hopefully, the greater the number of birds hatched and thriving, the less the impact will have. How do we achieve that?

For guidance, we're lucky to have numerous organizations already geared up to care for wildlife. According to Marin's WildCare-Terwilliger Wildlife Center, besides the virus, the current greatest danger to baby land birds is not the ever-increasing population of crows, though they're definitely a factor to be considered. It's those old bugaboos, domestic cats. Most readers probably already understand that. Cindy Dicke, Assistant Director of Animal Care for the center, thinks we should keep our tabbies inside during nesting time. That can be difficult with cats used to being outside. However, if we could, at least, keep them in when our local babies learn to fly, it would help. It may also be time for kitty to get a new bell.

It's necessary, to really do this, to become aware of any nests in our immediate surroundings. After observing the normal comings and goings and establishing a whistle communication with the parents, when those parents begin screeching, we can run out to scare away any predatory intruders as a limited hands-on solution. Recently, residents of a small apartment complex in San Anselmo established a rapport with the blue jays. Anyone who was home and heard the terrified screaming of the parents ran out and chased away the cat/crow/hawk. They saved many babies while losing only a few. Cul-de-sacs can do the same thing.

Cindy explains that delaying the pruning of fruit trees, small shrubs and bushes, with their leafier branches, would provide cover for nest building. This would be a great help. Pruning was certainly a factor in the San Anselmo complex. A plum tree, long a nesting site for the blue jays, was pruned early. That year, the jays nested in a bay tree only to have crows pick off the babies one by one.

Each species prefers a different type of bush as long as they can enter/exit freely and larger birds such can't get in. This should apply equally to cats. Another idea floating around is when a "low to the ground" nest is sighted. Here netting similar to that used on beaches in West Marin to protect endangered shore birds might be used to keep cats and crows away. Leave some nesting materials when you rake. Native Americans have been said to release hairs left over from grooming for birds to use in building their nests. There are a lot of solutions still uncovered.

Former and present efforts to restore native seed-bearing plants will come in handy as birds struggle to survive. It almost doesn't need to be said that any stagnant water collection should be drained to prevent mosquito breeding. Turning the compose during nesting time might help parent predators find grubs and worms instead of baby birds for nourishing their young.

Friends of Corte Madera Creek have several restorations planned and are always in need of volunteers. They also know a lot about native plants that could be planted. This is a particularly kid-friendly organization as they work with local high schools in restoration projects. FCMC can be reached at 457-6045 or 454-8608.

The Marin Audubon Society is advocating a system on its web site which designates important bird areas (IBA). These can be well-known sites or overlooked sites. In this more inclusive effort, the Society hopes that private and public landlords will designate their properties. When these areas are compiled, they'll be used to support local and state efforts for cooperative conservation planning, habitant management, public education and eco-tourism.

The important thing is that we join together in some sort of a loose federation and protect what birds are left. As far as the predatory and growing population of crows is concerned, Cindy Dicke says that crows are often the worse hit by West Nile Virus.



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