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Feds step up efforts to save western birds from open pipes

Open pipes in western states attract dozens of cavity-nesting species, including Mountain Bluebird. Photo by Greg Homel.
Open pipes in western states attract dozens of cavity-nesting species, including Mountain Bluebird. Photo by Greg Homel.

Infamous but little-known death traps await birds in the western United States — open plastic pipes, used to mark the boundaries of more than 3.5 million federal mining claims, and as fence posts and restroom vents.

Too often, Mountain Bluebird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and other cavity-loving birds, as well as woodpeckers, sparrows, shrikes, kestrels, and small owls, see the claim markers as hollows suitable for nesting and become trapped inside.

As we wrote in “Eye on Conservation” in June 2012, the tubes are too narrow for the birds to extend their wings to fly, and the walls are too smooth to let birds climb out. Death from dehydration or starvation soon follows. The threat has been documented from Oregon to New Mexico. Sometimes 30 pipes are used to mark each claim, while as many as 30 dead birds have been found in a single marker. According to a BLM report, the toll could be “enormous.”

At the urging of ABC and others, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service have announced new and coordinated efforts to address the issue. It’s expected that all pipes in one key area, southern Nevada, will be removed or modified by this winter.

Read ABC’s letter to the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service regarding vertical pipes, June 22, 2015 (PDF).

Moreover, the Interior Department has sent a brochure to every mining claimant who installed the pipes, providing direction on how the threat can be lessened, and the BLM is developing formal instructions for local land managers.

In addition, Forest Service personnel in some national forests are working to cover ventilation pipes on outhouses that trap birds, and agency staff members are seeking changes to contracting rules in order to ensure that the problem will not reoccur. (We described how pipes on vault toilets threaten Northern Saw-whet Owls and Western Screech-Owls in our August 2014 column.)

More needs to be done, but now that land managers have recognized the threat, we are seeing steady progress toward a solution. Forest Service have announced new and coordinated efforts to address the issue. It’s expected that all pipes in one key area, southern Nevada, will be removed or modified by this winter.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2015 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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This story was provided by American Bird Conservancy, a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas.

Read other articles by American Bird Conservancy.

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