Protecting the "Least" Bell's Vireo in California

by Dessi Sieburth

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Least Bell's Vireo, drawings by Dessi Sieburth

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You may not think that there is anything special about this little gray songbird that breeds here in Los Angeles County. However, the “Least” Bell’s Vireo has been endangered since 1986, when just 300 pairs were found. Its survival depends on native willows trees and other native plants which grow on riverbanks and lakes. Urban development is the biggest threat to this bird. Is there anything we can do to help that this bird does not vanish forever?

These active, gray birds only breed in coastal southern California. They then migrate south for the winter to Baja California. The “Least” Bell’s Vireo used to breed in the Sierra Nevada, Coast Ranges, Owens Valley, Death Valley, and the Mojave Desert. Now, their range is limited from northern San Diego County to the Santa Clara River (Ventura), and northeast to the Mojave River (San Bernardino). In Los Angeles, the “Least” Bell’s Vireo can be found during summer at a number of places such as Hansen Dam, Sylmar, Peck Pit, Arcadia and Hahamongna Watershed Park, La Cañada.

Urban development is not the only threat these birds face. The Brown-headed Cowbird, a brood parasite which lays their eggs in other birds’ nests, often targets the “Least” Bell’s Vireo as a host to their eggs and babies. There have been some efforts to help the “Least” Bell’s Vireo, and now the numbers are up to 2,500 pairs. Trapping cowbirds has been very successful, as well as creating new riparian habitat. However, this bird needs more protection. We can make a difference by being aware of the threats that this bird faces and getting involved in the protection of its habitat by attending public meetings and by writing to our local representatives. For example, the public helped save habitat at Hahamongna Watershed Park by convincing the City Council members to change the location of a planned new athletic field from Hahamongna to a local high school instead. Unfortunately there is a new project that threatens Hahamongna. Los Angeles County decided to remove at least 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment over the next five years to provide flood protection. This project would destroy 71 acres of habitat. Local residents, environmentalists and birders disagree with this plan and have come together to support a plan that would have less impact on the habitat. We need to continue writing letters and speak to our city and county officials about protecting our watersheds. The “Least” Bells Vireo’s survival depends on our actions!!

Dessi Sieburth, a 12 year-old birder and conservationist, lives in Montrose, California with his parents. He has been birding and drawing birds since he was eight-years old. This year, Dessi participated in the ABA Young Birder of the Year contest. He also received a scholarship to attend the Western Field Ornithology conference in San Diego, California this October. He regularly participates in field trips with Los Angeles Audubon.  At Dessi’s young age, his life list is currently at 460 species!

Published Western Tanager Vol. 81 No. 4 March/April 2015