WATER -- The Gift Of Bird Life

Across the West, upland bird hunters aid game departments by providing water sources for thirsty birds. You can help. Here's how. (December 2005)

Biologist Archie Meyers checks a guzzler in the California desert. Note the low, sloping openings, which allow birds and small mammals to walk (or crawl) in to reach the water when it is low in the tank. The brush piled on top offers birds a quick place to hide when predators approach.
Photo by Richard Alden Bean

Water is critical to life. Across the arid expanses of eastern Washington, Oregon and much of California, otherwise great game habitat would be barren of life without water. Unfortunately, man has taken most of the historical water available to wildlife to build cities and towns, and the development shunts wildlife.

State fish and game officials and hunters understand this and have for years worked to provide water resources that benefit wildlife, especially upland birds. While water to support populations of quail, chukar, grouse and dove is important to hunters, their efforts also help in the survival of dozens of non-game species.

Volunteers work with state agencies to maintain and enhance natural water sources that haven't been taken, and they also have built and maintained tens of thousands of artificial water sources known as "guzzlers," which catch and hold precious rainwater for wild birds and mammals.

Most guzzlers are built and maintained by volunteers, not state governments. Volunteers come from local sportsman's clubs, gun clubs and conservation-oriented hunter groups such as Quail Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation. Sometimes funding is provided by the state, but private citizens usually handle the grunt work: Hauling equipment, cement, tools and other gear, and then maintaining the sites.

If you find a guzzler, chances are good quail or chukar will be near. In dry areas, hunters often see hundreds of quail or chukar come to a single guzzler in the morning and evening hours to get a drink.

"Guzzlers got their start primarily in the late 1940s when sportsmen and game departments found they were a great way to mitigate for the loss of water to cities and agriculture," said Dick Haldeman, the West Coast director of Quail Unlimited. "We found they provide continued water during periods of drought for breeding populations of game birds and all kinds of other birds and mammals in arid parts of the country."

HELPING NON-GAME & GAME SPECIES

Haldeman noted that one QU chapter monitored guzzler use in the San Diego area and found that 54 species of animals used the upland bird guzzlers for water, including quail and mountain quail. The rest were non-game species, ranging from coyotes to lizards. "Where drinkers are on migratory routes, we see a lot of use by neo-tropical birds that come up through this area from South America," Haldeman said.

Arizona Game & Fish biologists recently released a report titled, "Study of Wildlife Water Developments in Southwestern Arizona." It shows how the creation of guzzlers and the improvements of springs and tinajas (natural rock pools that hold water briefly after desert rains) support game birds and animals, bats, reptiles and many species of non-game birds and small mammals.

Few within the non-hunting public know about the existence of guzzlers, and of those that do, a large percentage believe hunters have constructed them simply to create more birds to shoot. However, these studies prove that guzzlers mitigate for all human intrusion into habitat once used only by wild animals and birds.

"Quail Unlimited provides funding for some guzzler construction," Haldeman stressed. "A large part of the money collected from member fees stays with the local clubs and this gets used to support habitat conservation work, including riparian habitat repair, guzzler construction, removal of non-native invasive plant species such as salt cedar in the deserts, and sometimes replanting of native vegetation.

"Eradication of non-native species and invasive plants is a very good program, which saves and improves natural water sources," Haldeman said. "And a lot of our chapters created an Adopt A Guzzler program. They maintain (specific guzzlers) and make sure they have water year-round. We would like to make that into a formal program out West."

GUZZLER PATTERNS

The most common upland bird guzzler that hunters will come across includes an 18-foot-by-30-foot concrete apron that catches rainwater and delivers it to an underground tank. The tank has a wide, low opening that is gently sloped to allow birds and other creatures to reach the water regardless of its level, and be able to walk (or crawl) in and out. There are other designs, some with a collecting apron of rubberized material, and some with small metal water "troughs" equipped with floats.

In seasons of drought, fish and game workers or volunteers can deliver water to the tanks. Crews also maintain guzzlers and repair damage, typically caused by old age (cracks) or vandalism. Off-road vehicle riders and people plinking with firearms top the list of guzzler vandals.

DRINKER PROGRAMS IN YOUR STATE

Unless you have GPS coordinates, finding a guzzler can be difficult, and unfortunately, state game departments don't know the locations of them all. Washington, Oregon and California officials have not created full databases of guzzler locations and conditions, but all are working on it to some degree. Arizona and Nevada, however, have published completed lists of manmade water sources.

"We don't currently have a formal guzzler program," said Mike Cope of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. "We do work with private landowners to get drinkers installed as part of the Conservation Reserve Program. We give them extra points in the CRP program when they improve water sources, and part of the agreement includes guzzlers. We install the guzzlers and they maintain them. We have people to build guzzlers. We don't have a QU chapter in Washington. We are working with some landowners and probably putting in something like 15 guzzlers a year. I would estimate Washington has 1,200 guzzlers, mostly in the dryer eastern half of the state, the majority of which are for upland game."

"About 12 years ago we got with QU on the WHIP program, but right now we are pretty fragmented," said biologist Karen Fothergill, upland bird coordinator for California's Department of Fish & Game. "Most of the upland bird guzzlers are in Region 6 and Region 4 (Southern California). The WHIP program isn't functioning now but I have the remains of the program, and the old database on guzzlers from that. I am building a new computer program to locate and track all the guzzlers.

"What we need is a complete list of guzzlers -- along with a description of condition and the type of guzzler -- that we can use for maintenance. Perhaps we can go back, look at all the guzzlers and get a program going where we can tell volunteers like QU where the guzzlers are that haven't been looked at and need inspection and servicing."

"The actual work of building guzzlers in Oregon is done both with hired crews and volunteer help from interested hunter/conservation groups such as Quail Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation (Guzzlers for Gobblers program), and the Oregon Hunters Association," said Dave Budeau, upland game biologist for Oregon's Department of Fish & Wildlife. "There are several hundred guzzlers in central and eastern Oregon. There could be more than a thousand; we don't have a complete record at the state level."

Budeau noted that upland bird biologists in each region that has guzzlers probably have a pretty good handle on numbers and location. "We have one district in north-central Oregon that has over 200 guzzlers in it. Another district (Umatilla) just added 77 guzzlers as part of their CRP program," Budeau said. "If you are going to have guzzlers, you have to maintain them. They age, and we have been careful about making sure we can maintain these structures before we place them. The other thing we did was to record their exact locations (using GPS). Usually the district office knows where the guzzlers in their district are, but if a biologist retires or transfers, sometimes the information gets lost."

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Hunting on a guzzler is not a good idea ethically, and state-hunting regulations may prescribe distances hunters must be away from them or the amount of time you can spend near one. Check local or state regulations.

If you want to get involved, contact your regional fish and game agency office, or any chapter of either Quail Unlimited or the National Wild Turkey Federation.

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