Of all the migratory birds that come through Alexandria, the yellow-billed cuckoo is a personal favorite of Charles Studholme. As the owner of One Good Tern, a bird enthusiast shop, Studholme has a special admiration for the slender, long-tailed bird.
The “coccyzus americanus,” also known as the yellow-billed cuckoo, is one of the many species of warblers, vireos, thrushes and other passerines that find themselves in Alexandria every year — miniature tourists who are in search of a hotel where gypsy moth larvae are on the menu.
“The yellow-billed cuckoo is kinda shy and very sneaky,” said Studholme, who has owned One Good Tern since 2001. “It’s not a bird that comes to a bird feeder because they don’t eat seed.”
Not many people see them because they prefer heavily wooded areas, but they can be spotted by looking for a distinctive cinnamon-colored inner web that is often visible when the cuckoo is at rest. They have brown heads, white chins and brown tail feathers. Studholme described them as “slender and lithe and supple” creatures with a fondness for hairy caterpillars.
“They can eat other sources of food, but they seem to prefer hairy caterpillars,” he said, playing an mp3 recording of its song on his iPod. “The gypsy moth larvae have bristles all over them, so the yellow-billed cuckoo prefer them.”
But Studholme’s cuckoos may have a hard time finding gypsy moth larvae this year if the United States Forest Service doesn’t approve Alexandria’s request for a product known as Gypchek. Manufactured by the federal government, the viral pesticide is produced in limited quantities and reserved for areas in need of protecting endangered species. According to a plan approved by City Council last week, city officials will use the product if quantities are available. After a discussion of the plan at City Hall last week, Councilman Tim Lovain cast a lone vote against the use of Gypchek, saying of the plan: “Basically we’re paying more for an inferior product.”
“It may be inferior because it doesn’t kill everything it touches, but it’s only less expensive initially,” responded Studholme. “If you could put a dollar value on all the other beneficial insects that will be killed, I doubt that B.t. would be less expensive.”
THE CITY GOVERNMENT has been using B.t. since 1988, when 1,200 acres were sprayed. The next year, officials used the pesticide on 1,800 acres. Since that time, the program has tapered off significantly: 400 acres in 1990 to 44 acres in 1995. In 1998, the last year the city used B.t., two trees were sprayed in a public right-of-way. A 2001 aerial application was scrapped when the Federal Aviation Administration denied air access after imposing post 9-11 flight-restriction zone near Ronald Reagan National Airport.
Since then, city officials have become increasingly worried about the health of trees in the Beverley Hills neighborhood. In January, city officials presented a plant that would obtain a waiver from the Transportation Security Administration to spray B.t. over 75 acres in the Beverley Hills neighborhood. After Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald expressed a concern about detrimental effects to songbirds, Parks and Recreation Director Kirk Kincannon conducted a study of B.t.’s effect on birds in the area of aerial application.
“Although their food resources may be reduced within the spray block temporarily, other food sources are available to the birds,” wrote Kincannon in a Jan. 11 memorandum to council members. “There is no evidence that any birds in this area are directly affected by the aerial application of the B.t. to control gypsy moths.”
But the plan was postponed when D. Michael Fry, director of pesticides and birds for the American Bird Conservancy, appeared at a public hearing to warn members of the City Council that the bacteria pesticide is an indiscriminate killer of caterpillars that are an important part of the food chain. He suggested that the elected leaders research gypsy-moth eradication programs that were less damaging to non-targeted moths, butterflies, mosquitoes and beetles. B.t., he said, is not the best way to address the defoliation issue.
“It will cut down on the food supply of certain populations of birds,” said Fry during the Feb. 13 public hearing. “It’s a matter of rolling the dice in some respects.”
LAST WEEK’S VOTE cleared the way for the city to use Gypchek — if it’s available. If the Forest Service turns down the city’s request, officials are prepared to revert to the original plan of spaying B.t. In a speech explaining his dissenting vote against the use of the federally manufactured virus, Councilman Lovain explained that he wanted to see a fiscally responsible plan that would be effective in preventing gypsy moths from defoliating the city’s trees.
“I’m all for birds, and I have one myself,” said Lovain. “But I’m also concerned about the trees in Beverley Hills that are integral to the character of the neighborhood.”
“With all due respect,” responded Macdonald “I think $5,000 is a small price to pay for protecting all the neotropical birds that come through our area.”
City officials say that will not know until late March or early April if Gypchek is available. If the Forest Service grants the request, the virus will require two aerial sprayings: The first would cost $1,875, and the second would cost $3,750. If the viral pesticide is not available, city officials are prepared to pay $1,875 for one aerial application of B.t.