26 June 2020

Project Flyway: An Unconventional Rodent Problem

Written by: Abigail Dziegiel

Every fall, billions of birds take off on an incredible journey to escape the chill of winter. They travel to warmer climates to wait out the cold months, then head back home once spring arrives. The Pacific Flyway is the westernmost route that birds use, and it stretches all the way from Alaska to South America’s Patagonia.

Not all birds travel the whole route, but like anyone going on a long trip, every bird needs safe places to rest and eat along the way. The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex in central California is an important rest stop for millions of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds, cranes, geese, hawks, and songbirds. These birds depend on the wetlands at the refuge for food and shelter every year.

Unfortunately, an invasive species recently found its way into many California waterways and wetlands, including those at the refuge. Nutria (Myocastor coypus) are a large, aquatic rodent that looks a bit like a rat-tailed beaver with big, orange teeth. Cute as they are, they are responsible for destroying countless wetland ecosystems around the world. The problem is so bad that in some places, people are encouraged to help control the invading nutria by eating them!

Nutria cut down cattails, rushes, and other plants that grow along the edges of waterways. Since they only eat the softest, tastiest parts of these plants, nutria can quickly destroy large areas of habitat while feeding. This damages habitat for local species and can even cause banks to destabilize and wash away. Nutria also damage levees and canal banks with their burrows. This can cause floods and costly disruptions in the transport of precious water needed for agriculture, wildlife, industry, and homes throughout the state.

A dedicated team made up of state, federal, and county agencies and landowners is working hard to remove nutria from California. My project involves helping the United States Fish and Wildlife Service monitor the current nutria population at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Our goal is to better understand the nutria population at the refuge and determine which habitats they are most likely to invade. This will help the refuge in its efforts to protect our wetlands for the multitude of species, both local and visiting, that rely on them for their very survival.

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex

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