In spring and summer, walking from the parking lot into Shollenberger Park, the most appealing sights and sounds include the male red-winged blackbird. This passerine (a large order of birds distinguished by feet adapted for perching, including all songbirds) appears just like its name — blackbird with a bright red stripe on each wing. Its song is so melodious and distinctive.
The male red-winged black birds can be seen flying all around as they hunt for insects. What we do not see is the nesting female red-winged blackbird. The female is hidden, sitting on a nest, along the fresh water channels amidst tall cattails, reeds and grasses. Walkers, runners and bicyclists may not realize how closely they pass active bird nests as Shollenberger trails are accessed on a daily basis. Many additional birds also nest during this time of year at Ellis Creek, Shollenberger Park and Alman Marsh.
Federal law protects nesting birds from intrusion or harm. The federal protective law enacted in 1918 is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The MBTA basically protects nesting birds from people. Per US Fish and Wildlife Service, “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior…”
Buffer zones (part of California Code) protecting active nests from human activity and disturbance also help protect migratory birds. For example, in California, a buffer zone away from any human activity related to a Great Egret or Great Blue Heron is a 300-foot radius from a nesting tree or trees. For most passerines (songbirds), the buffer zone ranges from 50 to 100 feet.
In 2019, California responded to an effort by the Trump Administration to weaken the MBTA by passing our own California Migratory Bird Protection Act (AB 454) to protect thousands of species of migratory birds that travel to and from California’s wetlands, grassland and forests via the Pacific Flyway. In 2021, the current president assured the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is federal law.
Nesting season in California is considered to be February 15 to the end of August or early September. In any area where birds are nesting, there must be no mowing, tree pruning or tree removal during this time period.
National Audubon’s 2019 Climate Study reported that North America is home to nearly three billion fewer birds compared to 1970 — or one in four birds that have disappeared from our landscapes in less than half a century. In the climate emergency with changing seasons, extreme weather events, diminishing food and water sources, birds and wildlife face enormous challenges to survive. Let’s be mindful and sensitive while exercising outdoors and also out enjoying nature. If on a public trail and you see ahead of you a parent bird or wildlife parent with young, crossing the trail or path, please stop, be quiet, allow nature to take her course and then move on, respecting the birds and wildlife in their habitat, their home, with us as visitors.
(Susan Kirks is president of Madrone Audubon Society as well as a Naturalist with expertise in American Badger conservation. Craig Cherrstrom is a Petaluma Wetlands Alliance volunteer with extensive experience in bird identification, appreciation and protection.)