A bird well known to bird enthusiasts, but perhaps not to most Californians, today was named the 2009 Audubon California Bird of the Year after it received nearly 26 percent of votes cast during an online poll this fall. The Yellow-billed Magpie lives only in California’s Central Valley and coastal ranges, and may be enjoying a comeback after experiencing major declines due to habitat loss, West Nile Virus and pesticide use. (photo by Brian Sullivan)
Audubon California created the designation this year to highlight the state’s remarkable birds and the conservation challenges many of them face. The recognition specifically sought to recognize bird species that were of significant conservation interest in 2009, but that also had a compelling story and rallied the public around it.
“This is a terrific bird to feature as Audubon California’s first Bird of the Year,” said Graham Chisholm, executive director of Audubon California. “First of all, it’s a dynamic bird that people enjoy watching. Moreover, as Californians, it’s our bird, and it could really benefit from us knowing more about it and taking care of it.”
The Yellow-billed Magpie is one of California’s most striking birds, popular among birders and compelling among conservationists. Aside from its yellow bill, the bird is easily recognizable from its white, black and iridescent body and wings.
Nearly 3,000 votes were cast in Audubon California’s online poll, which began Oct. 21. Voters had the choice of selecting one of six birds nominated by the Audubon California Board of Directors, or writing in their own candidate. The Yellow-billed Magpie was one of the six nominated birds along with the California Condor, Brown Pelican, Western Snowy Plover, Peregrine Falcon and Acorn Woodpecker. The California Condor came in second place with about 19 percent of the vote, while the Western Snowy Plover came in third with about 16 percent.
“I couldn’t be more pleased to see the Yellow-billed Magpie get this recognition,” said Holly Ernest, who directs the Wildlife Population Health and Ecological Genetics Unit at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis. “This is a wonderful bird that faces a number of challenges to its survival.”
According to research by Ernest and others, the Yellow-billed Magpie declined at a slow but steady rate from 1995 to 2003, when the total number of magpies was estimated at 180,000 birds. Then the onslaught of West Nile Virus made the decline even steeper. Breeding Bird Survey and Audubon Christmas Bird Count data showed the decline as somewhere between 22 percent and 42 percent through 2006.
“Between 2004 and 2006, over 12,000 magpie carcasses were reported to the California Dept of Health Services and 78 percent of the magpies tested were West Nile Virus-positive,” said Ernest.
The last year brought hope that the Yellow-billed Magpies were coming back.
“Lots of anecdotal evidence suggests a rebound in birds” says Gary Langham, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. “People are reporting them in their yards after a few years absence and you can see it for yourself as you drive through the valley. The magpies are back.”
This past year, Audubon California sought to bolster the work of Ernest and other researchers by conducting a pilot survey of Yellow-billed Magpies in California. The survey identified 1,820 birds across 18 counties. Audubon California is anxious to expand its efforts when it conducts the survey again in June 2010.
Audubon California also has plans to support Yellow-billed Magpie conservation through public education and landowners and ranchers who steward the oak woodlands and farmland where the bird makes its home.
While the Yellow-billed Magpie wins the designation of 2009 Bird of the Year, Chisholm emphasized that its work on behalf of other California birds, nominated or not, will continue apace.
“Each of the six nominated birds was a major focus of conservation in 2009, although not all in the same way” said Chisholm. “It’s our hope that the attention that this draws to the magpie will help build support for bird conservation across the state.”