Benign-looking PVC pipes proving deadly to certain birds

By Jayson Jacoby May 04, 2012 09:10 am

I have, it seems, been misled into believing that a 12-gauge shotgun is an especially effective weapon for killing birds.

Turns out I should be lugging around lengths of PVC pipe instead.

Which, besides being comparatively light, aren’t likely to cause grievous wounds should you drop one while trying to climb over a barbed wire fence.

I bring up the slaying of birds not to poke fun at my ineptitude as a hunter, a trait which surely needs no embellishment.

(I am to upland birds what lightning is to the general public; a threat so remote that it can be rationally dismissed.)

In fact the topic is quite a serious one.

Birds across the mineralized West are dying, possibly by the millions, for no good purpose.

And these aren’t chukars or pheasants or other game birds that can legally be hunted, and once brought down by a wad of pellets, turned into a tasty and nutritious meal.

(Hypothetically, in my case. I do most of my protein harvesting in the grocery store.)

These are avian victims that only cretins or young boys, overwhelmed by the excitement of owning a first BB gun or .22 rifle, would think of shooting at.

Birds such as the western meadowlark, the mountain bluebird and the cactus wren, which are renowned for the beauty of their plumage or the sweetness of their song (or both, in many cases) rather than for the flavor of their meat.

(The meadowlark, by the way, is Oregon’s state bird. Which doesn’t exactly distinguish us; Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming have also claimed the species as their own. To which I say, big deal — try to get someone to pump your gas in those states. Or, with the exception of Montana, avoid paying sales tax.)

These birds aren’t dying because some thoughtless moron blazed away.

Their deaths are unintentional.

The culprits are nearly ubiquitous in parts of the West, particularly inland regions with proven deposits of valuable minerals.

Baker County, for instance.

If you’ve knocked around at all in the sagelands east of Baker City you’ve seen them — white PVC pipes jutting from the ground. They’re not especially tall — maybe five feet on average, and four to six inches in diameter — but being white they’re pretty conspicuous against the generally dun backdrop of stone and sage.

For some years I presumed — wrongly, as is my wont — that these pipes, like a lot of pipes, had something to do with irrigation.

Then someone set me straight, explaining that the pipes don’t convey water but mark the boundaries and corners of mining claims.

The nasty side effect of these pipes, according to the BLM, the Forest Service and the American Bird Conservancy, is that birds, and in particular cavity nesters, mistake the hollow tubes for fine places to roost or nest.

(Another theory is that birds, during migration, congregate inside the pipes to share body heat.)

Whatever the lure, the outcome is the same: Birds go down the tubes but, given the slickness of PVC and the generally vertical orientation of the pipes, they can’t climb out.

The pipes are so narrow that birds can’t extend their wings and fly to freedom, either.

So they die.

How many birds die at the bottom of these tubes is not known.

Researchers in Nevada who removing hundreds of pipes found an average of one bird carcass per pipe, with as many as 26 birds in a single marker.

The average in an Oregon survey near Burns was two birds per pipe.

A few minutes with the following statistics and a calculator leads to some grisly potential tallies.

According to the BLM, in 2010 there were almost 3.4 million mining claims on public land in 12 western states, including Oregon.

(Nevada has the most claims, slightly more than 1 million. Oregon has fewer than 275,000.)

Each claim is supposed to be marked on at least its four corners, although some claims have a dozen or more markers.

“This is a very significant bird mortality threat,” said Darin Schroeder, vice president for conservation advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy.

I admire Mr. Schroeder’s capacity for understatement.

Oregon’s roster of potential bird-trapping pipes is minor compared with Nevada’s, but still considerable.

I read several newspaper accounts from the late 1980s documenting what was described — wildly optimistically, as it turned out — as a 20th century gold rush.

Several mining companies invested considerable time, and millions of dollars, looking at the prospect of starting open-pit gold mines in Malheur County.

This never panned out.

But one lasting legacy of that era is the proliferation of PVC pipe claim markers.

According to one article from 1989, an Ontario hardware store was selling 3,600 feet of PVC pipe every four to five days.

Another story from later that year referred to the “trail of drill holes and white PVC pipe claimstakes” strewn about the high desert of Southeastern Oregon.

Although solutions to the pipe problem are in one sense easy — cap the pipe, or cut an exit hole near the base, or just remove the marker in states, including Oregon, where it’s no longer legal to use PVC pipes to mark claims — the sheer volume of claims illustrates the immensity of the task.

And even an ostensibly easy fix isn’t necessarily so.

In Nevada, for instance, a state law passed in 1993 bans mining claim holders from using uncapped pipes to mark boundaries. 

But about half the caps installed under the auspices of that law are no longer there.

(Should we use better glue? No, the obvious answer here is duct tape. Lots of duct tape.)

BLM officials at the agency’s headquarters in Washington are crafting a strategy to protect birds. In the meantime the agency, including its state offices in California and Nevada, is trying to figure out the fastest, and cheapest, way to eliminate the threat.

Oregon outlawed using PVC pipes to mark claims about 20 years ago, said Mark Wilkening, a spokesman for the BLM’s Vale District, which includes large swathes of Baker County as well as those erstwhile Malheur County gold fields.

Miners in Oregon must use “natural” materials to mark their claims instead — wooden posts or rock cairns, for instance (Oregon Revised Statute 517.010, if you’d prefer to read the legalese intact.)

Yet that ban took effect after the short-lived gold rush of the late ’80s, so the “trail of white PVC pipe claimstakes” mentioned in the newspaper article still meanders across the sagebrush steppes of Eastern Oregon.

(Claim holders aren’t legally required to remove PVC pipes; they just can’t pound in new ones or reset old pipes that fall over.)

Wilkening doesn’t know whether workers have found any dead birds inside pipes around here. It seems unlikely, though, based on the bird body count in other places, that this unnatural forest of pipes is completely benign locally.

Wilkening said employees from BLM’s minerals department who come across PVC pipes on the Vale District yank the markers and haul them to a landfill if they’ve verified that the claim is no longer valid.

For valid claims, BLM encourages the claim holder to replace PVC pipe markers with wooden posts or cairns, Wilkening said.

But these protective measures are simply happenstance, not a concerted campaign to clear the land of bird-killers.

There is, it seems to me, a great opportunity here for Boy Scouts or some other group whose members not only have the physical fortitude required but might actually have fun traipsing through the sagebrush each spring.

PVC parties, you could call them.

I have but one suggestion.

Bug repellent.

PVC pipes are common.

But ticks are omnipresent.

And unlike meadowlarks, ticks have no trouble getting traction on plastic.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.