Nature Notes | Nurturing Nature in West Texas

Photograph by Michael L. Gray. A painted bunting – a radiant bird that winters in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and migrates through West Texas – at a backyard water feature.
Photograph by Michael L. Gray. A painted bunting – a radiant bird that winters in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and migrates through West Texas – at a backyard water feature.

Nurturing Nature in West Texas with “Water for Wild Birds”

By Andrew Stuart

On the prairies and deserts, in the cities and towns, sweet bursts of melody are announcing spring’s arrival in West Texas. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, a single bird song, and “the whole landscape flushes on a sudden at a sound.” That sound has been the ambient music for the entire experience of homo sapiens.

And it’s fading – as birds become the leading indicator of what our species is doing to the planet. Between 1970 and 2020 – less than the span of a human life – North American bird populations declined by almost 30 percent – there are 3 billion fewer birds on the continent than 50 years ago. Some of the causes – habitat destruction, pesticide use, climate change – call for large-scale action. But there are also simple steps any of us can take – that will benefit birds, and enrich our own lives.

Trans-Pecos Bird Conservation is a new nonprofit, working for West Texas birds and bird habitat. In this arid region, its organizers say, there is one especially vital thing we can do for birds: offer water.

Cecilia Riley is an ornithologist and former director of the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory.

“It’s going to be hard to stop industrial farming and industrial pesticide use,” Riley said, “not that we shouldn’t encourage our legislators to manage that more appropriately. But can you do that, as an individual? Probably not. Nor can I. What you can do is look at your own patch – whether it’s a backyard, or it’s a ranchette, or it’s a great big ranch – and figure out a way to utilize some of that habitat for birds.”

When Riley retired to the Davis Mountains, she joined other area ornithological hands in organizing the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration, through the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce.

The Apache Corporation – a petroleum company operating near the Davis Mountains – wanted to support the hummingbird festival, and other conservation initiatives. To receive grant funding, organizers needed a 501c3 nonprofit. In 2019, Riley and her collaborators launched Trans-Pecos Bird Conservation – or TBC.

TBC continues to host the hummingbird celebration. And it’s reprinting publications developed by Texas Parks & Wildlife – including the Trans-Pecos Bird Checklist, and a “hummingbird wheel,” which helps novice or casual birders identify and learn about hummingbird species.

But it’s latest initiative is a new publication, produced with the Borderlands Research Institute and the Tierra Grande Master Naturalists, called “Water for Wild Birds.”

Its message is urgent – because of changes humans have wrought in West Texas.

“Water has been diverted,” Riley said. “It’s been taken out of ground, so you don’t have as much in the way of seeps and springs. Just think about the riparian areas, where you’re watching all the cottonwoods die. They once lived on underground water – we’ve used a lot of that for industry. Water is harder to come by.”

There are ambitious projects to restore or create wetlands here that can support avian life, including the Bishop Wetlands near Presidio and The Nature Conservancy’s Sandia Springs Preserve. But any backyard can become habitat for the birds that live in and migrate through the region.

It can be as simple as a trash can lid, buried to ground level, with a plastic jug and a drip system. Water an inch deep is fine – indeed, songbirds need shallow water sources. Nearby brush or vegetation is critical – to provide birds with shelter from predators.

Riley said she uses regulators on her drip systems – so that water is present when she and her husband leave on trips. Because consistency is key.

She pointed to her Fort Davis colleague Madge Lindsay, who’s been cultivating a native plant garden, with water features, for decades. It’s now a destination for birds in migration.

“She’s built that garden, and has been adding to that garden, for birds, for 20 years,” Riley said, “and that’s the birdiest place anywhere. If I want to do a bird count or something, it’s way better to go to her house than my own, even though I’m building that. It’s only four years old, and it takes time. And anyone can do that in their yard, regardless of what size it is.”

While human activity has reduced the presence of springs and streams, we’ve also added water to the West Texas landscape – in tanks and troughs for livestock. Yet deep troughs are most often a hazard for birds and other wildlife. Birds – as well as bats, lizards and mammals – come for a drink, and can’t get out. Ladders or perches – even something as simple as an agave stalk fixed in a trough – means birds can water, without the risk of drowning.

Conservation is often taken to be synonymous with protected lands and wilderness – with the implicit idea that the best we can do for wild creatures is to give them a bit of land, and keep our distance. Accustomed as we are with our capacity to destroy, the idea that we can have a positive relationship with the wild can seem almost revolutionary. It takes some thought and effort. But, as “Water for Wild Birds” shows, it pays dividends in beauty and song.

“Water for Wild Birds” is available to download or print. Google “Water for Wild Birds Chihuahuan Desert,” or visit the Nature Notes homepage for a link to the document.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.