Tricolored blackbird on consider list as federal endangered species

A male tricolored blackbird takes flight on a farm near Williams.
A male tricolored blackbird takes flight on a farm near Williams. lsterling@sacbee.com

The tricolored blackbird, a species whose numbers have plunged in the Central Valley, has been included as one of nine species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing as endangered.

The decision sets in motion a process that may lead to the species being listed as an endangered species at the federal level that may result in less birds’ nests being destroyed by landowners – one of the reasons identified for recent declines.

Disappearance of wetlands in the Central Valley has been cited by wildlife officials as the major factor in declining populations over many decades.

However, the birds now depend largely on Central Valley dairy farmers for their survival. Colonies of the tricolored blackbird are frequently found in fields where dairy farmers grow feed for their cows. Each fall, dairy farmers harvest the feed, plowing under many of the nestlings in the process.

Although it is illegal to destroy bird nests in California, enforcement of such actions are rare.

A 2014 inventory led by UC Davis, Audubon California, and state and national wildlife agencies identified a 44 percent drop in the tricolored blackbird population since 2011. That survey found roughly 145,135 tricolored blackbirds. In the 1930s, an estimated 3 million tricolored blackbirds flew across California's skies.

“It’s been hard to get agencies to act to protect the species; that’s why this listing is absolutely necessary, said Lisa Belenky, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, the San Francisco-based organization that filed a petition to include the tricolored blackbird as a candidate for emergency listing consideration at both the state and federal level.

The bird was listed under the California Endangered Species Act on an emergency basis recently. That listing expired in June and was not renewed by the California Fish and Game Commission. The listing made it illegal for farmers to destroy birds’ nests.

The decision by the wildlife agency to consider listing the tricolored blackbird begins a lengthy process that starts with a public comment period that ends Nov. 17. Thereafter, the agency will weigh information before it makes a decision on a listing, said Sarah Swenty, a spokeswoman for U.S Fish and Wildlife.

The agency said Thursday it is also considering listing the California spotted owl, Inyo Mountains salamander, Kern Plateau salamander, lesser slender salamander, limestone salamander, Panamint alligator lizard, Shasta salamander and the southern rubber boa.

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz