Wildlife lovers gathered in the shadow of the Highway 101 bridge over the Petaluma River Friday evening to protest slow action by state and federal agencies in preventing birds from dying in construction netting.

"Caltrans is NOT above the law," stated one sign. "Stop killing birds" was another.

Cliff swallows that build their mud nests each spring in the concrete bridge supports are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Activists have been pressing Caltrans for several weeks after they discovered contractors working on the highway widening project installed "exclusionary netting" that instead of preventing the birds from nesting, trapped and entangled them.

They estimate about 200 birds have died.

Advocates from the Native Songbird Care & Conservation, the Madrone Audubon Society, Golden Gate Audubon Society, WildCare and others demonstrated Friday under the overpass at Lakeville Highway.

"I consider myself a voice for animals," said Maggie Rufo of WildCare, who said she's been blocked from the contractor's Facebook page for demanding answers.

Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus said late Friday that the contractors have been working double shifts seven days a week since the bird deaths began to try to close gaps in the net and prevent further problems.

Caltrans has documented 65 bird deaths, he said, and none since April 19.

Killing the birds or removal of active nests are violations of federal law. Michael Woodbridge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said potential violations are being investigated. Several agencies involved were meeting on the issue Friday afternoon, he said.

Veronica Bowers, director of the Native Songbird Care & Conservation advocacy group, said construction workers have told her they continue to pull dead birds from the nets daily.

Since April 12, Caltrans has been required to turn all bird carcasses over to the federal wildlife service. Haus declined to comment on the possibility of fines for the deaths.

The three-year Petaluma-area 101 widening project, which got under way this month, includes netting that was hung on the underside of the bridge supports to prevent the migratory swallows from nesting there during construction.

But birds were able to get through or behind the nets and build their nests on the concrete. Some, though, were getting trapped or entangled in the nets and were killed.

Haus said the same netting had been used previously without problem, but that the contractor had received a more durable and more visible net to use. It wasn't clear Friday whether that had been installed.

"After the netting was 'repaired,' it continued to ensnare and kill swallows and other birds because the nets constantly loosen in this high-wind area," said Sheri Cardo of the songbird conservation group.

The preferred alternative is Teflon sheeting, she said. Haus said Caltrans is examining all options.

"There are viable alternatives to the netting that will not take, capture, kill, injure or maim the swallows that have nested under the bridge for decades," said Stephen Wells, executive director of the Cotati-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. "It is crucial that Caltrans find solutions that do not violate federal law."

Cliff swallows spend about six month of the year in South America and make the 14,000 mile round trip journey to nest here in early spring, building mud nests on natural and man-made structures. Cliff and barn swallows have been nesting on the bridge for decades.

Swallows and other birds are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act and state fish and wildlife codes. Possessing, killing, harming them or disturbing active nests can be violations.

Advocates say Caltrans and the regulatory agencies have ignored their requests to discuss the situation.

(Contact Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)

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