The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed protecting more than half a million acres of critical habitat for the yellow-billed cuckoo across nine Western states, including about 280 miles of habitat along rivers in New Mexico.
The bird – distinguished by its black-and-white tail and thin yellow bill – mates and raises its chicks in New Mexico near the Rio Grande and Gila rivers each spring before heading back to its home in South America, a range that includes parts of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.
In New Mexico, the yellow-billed cuckoo nests in the willows and cottonwoods found along river banks. The spread of agriculture and residences, overgrazing and the building of dams have fragmented or eliminated the bird’s habitat, according to Fish and Wildlife.
The bird does New Mexico’s river ecosystems a favor, said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity.
When laying eggs and raising chicks, “it has to gorge itself on grasshoppers, cicadas, caterpillars – animals that can do a lot of damage to those cottonwood trees,” Robinson said. “It is one of the factors that controls the damage to those trees.”
Also known as the “rain crow,” its song is a harbinger: The bird has a habit of singing right before a storm, according to Robinson.
Altogether, Fish and Wildlife proposes designating 546,335 acres of critical habitat across Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
“Critical habitat identifies areas with essential nesting and fledgling sites where conservation actions are needed to protect and recover this imperiled songbird,” Jennifer Norris, an agency field supervisor in Sacramento, Calif., said in a statement.
Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge or preserve, according to Fish and Wildlife, and it does not prevent private landowners from taking actions on their land that do not require federal funding or permits.
The agency said it will be accepting comments on the proposed critical habitat designation through mid-October.