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A rare songbird's epic journey from the edge of extinction back to the LA River

Lila Seidman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LOS ANGELES — As visitors to a bustling park in northeast Los Angeles shot hoops, scrambled up play equipment and lounged in manicured grass, an endangered songbird covertly — but not quietly — did his part to stave off extinction.

The least Bell’s vireo, a small, mostly gray songbird, was on the verge of nesting in Rio de Los Angeles State Park, a green respite that supplanted an abandoned railyard along the L.A. River. The bird with a wingspan of just seven inches was singing passionately, an act that marked its territory as breeding season picked up in mid-March. Its song rings out like a clinking question-and-answer: “Cheedle-cheedle-chee? Cheedle-cheedle-chew!”

“It’s persistent. It’s a survivor,” said Nicolas Gonzalez, senior communications manager for migration science at the National Audubon Society, an avian conservation nonprofit, who helped identify the bird as it flitted between trees, blending into the muted spring sky.

Bird boosters, meanwhile, were hustling to get the grounds in order.

Evelyn “Evy” Serrano enthusiastically instructed two volunteers at Rio de Los Angeles, which is in the Glassell Park neighborhood, on how to create what looked like moats of soil around fledgling native plants. Serrano, director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park, another urban oasis, explained that the berms would funnel water to the mule fat, black sage, golden currant, sycamore trees and other native foliage the least Bell’s vireo needs to thrive. Certain plants provide cover and nest materials, while others attract yummy insects.

So far, the literal dirty work seems to be paying off. A lone least Bell’s vireo was documented at the park when the habitat restoration effort targeting the species began about two years ago, Serrano said. Within a year, there were four — two nesting pairs. Last year, they counted three fledglings.

 

“Sometimes it takes a really long time to see the change,” Serrano said. “It was really nice to see it happen so quickly.”

Stakeholders see the migratory birds’ rebound in the park and surrounding areas as a testament to what can happen when people come together to make positive change and natural environments are supported. It also suggests that people can live in harmony with nature — even in highly urbanized areas.

But significant legwork preceded the recent local triumph, and what can be seen as historic missteps were walked back. Meanwhile, there are new and old threats.

Once abundant in California’s riverside woodlands, the silver-tongued, whitish-bellied least Bell’s vireo vanished from most of its range by the 1980s, remaining only in Southern California and northern Baja California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. (The birds are the smallest of four subspecies of Bell’s vireo.)

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