Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!
This week at the Beckman Center, Senior Research Technician Colleen Wisinski educated my fellow interns and I about the conservation efforts to help save the coastal cactus wren, a species of special concern recognized by the state of California. These unique birds thrive in the highly endangered coastal sage scrub habitat. Threatened by urbanization, frequent fires, and non-native plant species, there is only ten percent of the coastal cactus wren’s habitat left. Urbanization and fires such as the Witch Creek Fire in 2007 destroy many of the cacti that the wrens depend upon to build their nests. The nests of cactus wrens are not only used for nesting, but also for sleeping and living in, and are therefore extremely important for these birds. However, due to the efforts of professionals such as Ms. Wisinski at the Beckman Center, the cactus wren’s progress is studied and monitored in the 800-acre Safari Park Biodiversity Preserve. Today, Ms. Wisinski not only taught us how she helps to conserve these birds, but also how we all can help to conserve the cactus wren and their habitat. After all, as Ms. Wisinski said, “it doesn’t take a whole lot to make a difference.”
We learned that one of the easiest things a person can do for the coastal cactus wren is to plant native species in their yards. Coastal cactus wrens are birds that rely on a very specific habitat in order to survive. Their coastal sage scrub habitats include prickly pear cactus, cholla cactus, buckwheat, sagebrush, laurel sumac, and Mexican elderberry. While you do not need to plant all of these species in your yard, planting prickly pear and cholla cacti instead of invasive plant species such as grasses can help to save this bird’s endangered habitat. Researchers at the Beckman Center, such as Ms. Wisinski, have planted thousands of prickly pear cacti in the Preserve, which the coastal cactus wrens build their football-shaped nests. By choosing native plants for your garden that will not compete with the cactus wren’s habitat, you can be a conservationist like Ms. Wisinski.
While cactus wrens and their chicks have many predators, including native wood rats, a predator that these birds should not have is your house cat. As unlikely as it may seem, outdoor house cats prove a major threat to the coastal cactus wren. A single cat allowed outdoors could potentially wipe out an entire small population of cactus wrens, which is extremely harmful to the species’ survival. Although it can be difficult to keep your cat indoors, it is a relatively easy step that will save many cactus wrens’ lives.
If you don’t have a yard to plant native species in, or a cat to keep indoors, don’t worry! There are still many simple ways to help the coastal cactus wren. From turning off your lights when you are not in the room, lowering your AC, or taking 5-7 minute showers, all these simple steps not only help conserve the cactus wren and its habitat, but also many other species. As Ms. Wisinski explained, “Conservation is all about doing simple things and being less selfish,”and, “I would rather be part of the solution than part of the problem.” How about you?
Thalia, Conservation Team
Fall 2012, week 3