Bird enthusiasts from throughout California will descend upon the state's Central Valley and Coastal Ranges to count Yellow-billed Magpies this weekend. Popular among birders and compelling for conservationists, the Yellow-billed Magpie lives only in California, and may be may experiencing a comeback after major declines due to habitat loss, West Nile Virus and pesticide use.
"The Yellow-billed Magpie is a great California bird, very popular among bird enthusiasts and the general public," said Andrea Jones, Audubon California's director of Important Bird Areas. "If we want to be sure that the Yellow-billed Magpie is part of California's future, we need to know where it is living and in what numbers - and that's what this survey tells us."
Audubon California's survey last year identified 3,607 birds across 22 counties.
The Yellow-billed Magpie survey is notable for its simplicity and for how easy it is to participate. People are asked to look for the bird anytime during the survey period - June 3 through 6 - and then go online to eBird (www.ebird.org/california) to register their findings. Participants don't need to be bird experts and they don't need to look for birds during the entire survey period. More information about the survey is available at www.ca.audubon.org.
"What makes this survey unique is that it's so easy to take part - just about anybody can join in and make a real contribution," said Jones. "The bird is very easy to identify and people can look for birds as much or as little as they want during the survey period."
Audubon California is sharing data from the survey with researchers at UC Davis and elsewhere, who are monitoring the Yellow-billed Magpie and identifying ways to help grow the population. Using eBird for data collection ensures that information about the bird is fed directly to bird researchers and conservationists around the world.
The Yellow-billed Magpie's range includes the Sacramento and San Joaquin valley floors and foothills, and valleys of Coast Ranges from San Francisco Bay south to Santa Barbara County. For a variety of reasons - including habitat loss, pesticide use and West Nile Virus - the Yellow-billed Magpie population has found itself at risk in recent years, and it is now an Audubon Watchlist species.
Researchers with Audubon California have identified the Yellow-billed Magpie as being particularly susceptible to climate change. According to models created with historic climate data, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and American Breeding Bird Survey, researchers determined that the species could lose as much as 75 percent of its range (a loss that could push it over the brink into extinction) in the next 100 years if nothing is done to address global greenhouse gases.
According to research by the Wildlife Population Health and Ecological Genetics Unit at the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis, 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.
Recent surveys indicate that the Yellow-billed Magpies is coming back. People have been reporting them in their yards after a few years absence and many feel the birds are more visible in the valleys.