O -State grad students research Cimarron County bird population

by Scott McConnell,

Zoology Department OSU

My colleague John Shackford and I spent the past May and June in Cimarron County conducting field research on Oklahoma Panhandle birds for the Oklahoma Cooperative Wildlife and Fisheries Research Unit, based at OSU. The area has a rich and diverse avifauna, particularly in the Black Mesa area where many eastern and western birds meet.

Our principal study birds were mountain plovers and long-billed curlews, whose breeding ranges in Oklahoma are confined almost exclusively to Cimarron County. The plovers are similar to the familiar killdeers, but are much less noticeable. They nest in some of the bare fields around Boise City and Keyes, but are difficult to detect because they are less vocal than the killdeers and are tough to see due to their cryptic coloration. The curlews, by contrast, are conspicuous and well-known to many area residents. I was told by several people that there used to be a lot more curlews in the area 50 years ago; they have apparently declined but are still a noticeable feature of summer bird life in Cimarron County.

Common nighthawks are a familiar sight in the area. They often sit motionless on top of a fencepost (one Cimarron resident told me he calls them “fencepost birds”), but males also frequently perform their courtship flight displays during which they emit a nasal “peent” several times before swooping down and making a loud, crescendoed “voooom” sound with their wings. The ubiquitous western kingbirds, gray above and yellow below, are probably the most common bird around Cimarron towns and farmsteads. They are noisy, quarrelsome birds; one resident described them as “sociable, but always bickering.” Sudden squabbles repeatedly break out, with several birds chasing each other through the treetops, calling excitedly, and only the birds know exactly what the dispute is all about. In the farm areas the horned larks are everywhere, in all habitats, often sitting in the roads until an auto is right on top of them before flying. Say's phoebes can be found nesting at almost any abandoned building. The song of the western meadowlark, a bird with a bold, black “V” across its brilliant yellow breast, is heard frequently throughout the countryside. They seem to have a particular fondness for the Boise City Cemetery. Swainson's hawks are easily the most common breeding hawk and nest in Siberian elms, especially around old buildings. They are mostly white below and have a two-toned wing pattern easily noted when in flight. Burrowing owls nest in the prairie dog towns and hover-hunt for mice and insects during the day; barn, great horned, and short-eared owls work the night shift. The Boise City and Keyes sewage ponds pull in a lot of interesting ducks, herons, and shorebirds. Blue grosbeaks, scaled (or “blue”) quail, ring-necked pheasants, barn swallows, mourning doves, grasshopper and Cassin's sparrows, common and great-tailed grackles, lark buntings (males black with a white patch on the shoulder), and red-winged blackbirds round out the birds commonly found throughout Cimarron county in the summer. Some birds more typically found south or west of Oklahoma, such as golden eagles, prairie falcons, vermillion flycatchers, and Lewis' woodpeckers, may be encountered in the Black Mesa area.

I was impressed with the laid back and friendly people I met with in the county. Farmers were always happy to stop and chat about the birds on their property, and ranchers were pleased to meet someone interested in their land's natural features and history. I must admit, however, that I was perplexed about local attitudes towards hawks and owls. They are generally disliked; the usual reason given was that “they hammer my quail.” The types of hawks found nesting around Boise City have about as much chance of catching a quail as a nose tackle has of catching a wide receiver: Happens sometimes, usually fortuitously, but nothing to worry the quail much. Cimarron County is BLESSED with an abundance of barn owls and Swainson's, ferruginous, and red-tailed hawks, which are all principally RODENT eaters. In fact ferruginous hawks in this area usually nest in close proximity to a prairie dog town because that is their principal food item. Legal protection for prairie dogs will never extend to a ban on the erection of ferruginous hawk nesting platforms. If I was to go up to a farmer and pitch a rodenticide that costs nothing, is nontoxic, and can kill 400-500 rodents per application, I'm sure it would be readily accepted. That's what a barn owl pair can take in a single nesting season. I think it would behoove every farmer to have a barn owl box on the silo, and every rancher to have a ferruginous hawk platform in a remote spot on the range.

I look forward to returning to Boise City next year and reacquainting myself with all the interesting birds and people I met with this summer. Any questions or comments can be directed to the author at smcconn@okstate.edu.

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