Update 4/28/13: On behalf of the Madrone Audubon Society, Lippe, Gaffney, Wagner LLP sent this letter to Caltrans and parties involved in the Cliff Swallow deaths: Federal Highway Administration Violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
Added on 4/24/13: Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has sent a cease and desist letter on the issue of the Petaluma Cliff swallows. Here’s an excerpt from the press release:
Today, the national nonprofit Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sent off a letter warning the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to cease and desist violations of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by using netting that has killed and injured over a hundred swallows in a one month period in Petaluma. ALDF’s letter, sent to the DOT and its partner agents C.C. Myers and Caltrans, calls upon the agencies to stop using the netting to block swallows from flying underneath the Petaluma River and Lakeville Overpass bridges. Caltrans, currently developing a U.S. highway 101 widening project in the Marin-Sonoma Narrows, has been criticized publically by animal advocates for the dangers posed to wildlife by the use of this netting. If no corrective action is taken by April 29, 2013, ALDF intends to commence legal action regarding the violations of federal laws.
This issue is close to my home town in the Bay Area, and involves a species I had many privileges to observe, photograph and marvel over during their annual nest-building extravaganzas in California.
On April 7, Native Songbird Care & Conservation started documenting Cliff Swallows entangled in netting under a Highway 101 overpass at the Petaluma River, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. The birds were attempting to nest on the Caltrans structure, but were getting tangled in nets that Caltrans had strung across the area to prevent the nesting. At least a 100 birds have died so far, which is tragic enough. But, here’s the kicker:
Caltrans is not taking appropriate, physical action to remove the nets, despite repeated pleas from wildlife groups and advocates. According to a KTVU report the Caltrans contracted workers arrive at night to remove the dead birds and then simply dispose of them, while more birds get trapped, suffer and die in subsequent days.
Killing protected species like Cliff Swallows is in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. According to Native Songbird Care, Caltrans does not have a “take” permit which would be required to circumvent the provisions of that Act. The situation can be immediately remedied by removing the problem netting. Until that happens, Cliff Swallows are suffering from entanglement, and bird rescuers can’t access the site which is 100 feet up.
In their efforts to escape entrapment, birds flap and twist in ways that further wrap them in the offending nets or wires. As we saw with the gulls out at Westport, the panicked birds will also try to push through gaps in the netting, getting their heads and necks cinched in the process. These stuck birds then die from the brutality of exposure. In this video, documented by George Eade, you can see how loosely draped netting like this is a disaster for birds.
It’s heartbreak enough to discover such a grisly situation, but it’s an added travesty when the agents responsible for the problem either ignore or drag their feet on solutions, once the situation is clearly pointed out to them.
For me, this story is personal on one level, since I’ve encountered so many situations involving birds entangled in wire, filament, deterrent mesh or netting. But the story also has wider implications — about our unconscious coexistence with other species. Humans so often operate as if we’re the only species worthy of consideration. This is especially true when the needs of humans overlap with the needs of nonhumans. As Native Songbird Care & Conservation points out, there are often safe, non-lethal alternatives to the cheap and lazy methods people employ to deter or exterminate wildlife.
The loose-hanging nets installed by Caltrans are not acceptable. In this document published by Caltrans, they themselves recommend a different method for excluding Cliff Swallows.
From Methods for Excluding Cliff Swallows from Nesting on Highway Structures
“Exclusion by placing nets around a structure prior to the swallows’ arrival in the spring is a commonly used method for preventing nesting. While netting is often successful occasionally birds become entangled and die. This constitutes unintentional take and does not comply with the MTBA, leading Caltrans to seek better means for preventing swallow nesting.” (p.1)
– and –
“The research team suggests treating bridges with PTFE sheeting while broadcasting cliff swallow alarm and distress calls to reduce the likelihood of nesting on bridge surfaces.” (p.2)
Today, a petition arose to address the entanglement problem in Petaluma:
When you see netting under structures, always check for trapped, live birds. I’ve found quite a few situations where birds were stuck under exclusion netting after having found a way in. I’ve encountered helpful business owners who were willing to do something about it — and I’ve also run into resistance from larger organizations where you have to dig deep to find someone willing to address the problem.
More information about this story here:
- Native Songbird Care & Conservation: They’ve been documenting the situation from the start on their Facebook page.
- HuffPo Article by Maggie Sergio: Summarizes the situation.
- Caltrans versus Cliff Swallows: Golden Gate Audubon post.
- KTVU Video on the subject
- Photographer George Eade’s documentation: A slideshow and video footage.
- List of people to contact: From Native Songbird Care & Conservation
Photo: Cliff Swallow nest in Palo Alto, California – © Ingrid Taylar
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