Millions of birds have died and millions more are in danger from a widespread hazard in 12 Western states: uncapped plastic pipes used to mark many of the 3.4 million mining claims on public lands.
Migratory birds from western meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds to screech owls and woodpeckers are mistaking the open ends of PVC pipes for natural hollows suitable for nesting, roosting or congregating to generate body heat.
Doomed birds enter the PVC pipes, which average 4 inches in diameter and stand about 4 feet high, but become trapped as they fail to gain traction on the smooth interior surfaces and cannot extend their wings to fly out of the narrow cavities. They eventually succumb to starvation or dehydration.
The Audubon Society reports:
Exposed vertical pipes with open tops pose a tremendous hazard to birds and other wildlife. They are particularly hazardous for birds that either fall into these openings, or enter looking for nesting space. Once inside, birds are unable to open their wings to fly out, and the smooth sides make it impossible to climb out. Inevitably, the birds suffer a miserable, unnecessary death from starvation and exposure.
Open pipes kill birds indiscriminately. Both common birds and protected species have been found among the layers of dead birds in open pipes. And the destruction can occur in pipes from one to 10 inches wide.
Audubon California staff recently pulled down a 20-foot-tall ventilation pipe from an abandoned irrigation system and discovered a seven-foot-long black mass composed entirely of decomposed carcasses of hundreds of dead birds and animals including kestrels, flickers, bluebirds, and fence lizards. The date etched into the concrete at the base of the pipe showed that it had been in place for more than 50 years.
Federal land management officials acknowledge the threat, estimated by the American Bird Conservancy as responsible for at least 1 million bird deaths a year, although mining industry representatives (Surprise, surprise!) say wildlife advocates exaggerate the problem.
PVC piping, which is durable, cheap and easily visible, has become the material of choice for the flagging of mining claims in the West over the past several decades.
Those claims have proliferated under a century-old law that permits private citizens to stake rights to gold, silver and other “hard-rock minerals” on federal property administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Possible steps include encouraging prospectors, through a letter or web-based campaign, to replace PVC pipes with solid markers such as wooden posts.
With populations declining among nearly two-thirds of all bird species found in the United States, the federal government is obliged by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to prevent the incidental deaths of migratory birds and even to penalize violators, said Darin Schroeder, vice president with the American Bird Conservancy.
Birders argue the Western landscape is littered with them. The trend is pronounced in Nevada, which is home to 1 million mining claims, many of them inactive, according to the BLM.
What do you think? Should federal authorities act to replace mining claims marked by PVC pipes with those marked with other markers, such as wooden posts?
Photo Credit: irrational_cat