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Wildlife advocates decry bird deaths in netting at Petaluma highway project

  • Swallows caught and dead in the nets under the highway 101 bridge over the Petaluma River in Petaluma on Thursday April 11, 2013. (Scott Manchester/The Press Democrat)

Bird watchers are blasting the Highway 101-Petaluma River Bridge construction project, saying contractors hung a net that is supposed to protect birds but is instead killing them.

The three-year project, which got under way this month, includes netting hung on the underside of the bridge to prevent migratory swallows from nesting there during construction, protecting them from danger.

But the netting has had just the opposite effect, said Veronica Bowers of Sebastopol, director of the Native Songbird Care & Conservation advocacy group.

"The birds are alighting on the net, which is very loose and tangled around," she said. "They are becoming entangled. But worse is that there are entry points where they are climbing in and becoming trapped in the interior. They're being left up there to die."

Caltrans spokesman Bob Haus acknowledged there is a problem with the netting, which was hung Feb. 15.

Thirty-four dead birds have been documented, he said. Bowers said her group is continuing to document deaths. On Sunday, she said 17 dead cliff swallows and 1 barn swallow were counted hanging in the netting.

Workers at the site noticed a problem March 27, Haus said, and Caltrans reported the issue to federal and state wildlife agencies.

"We've been working with them ever since then, providing them with five-day reports," he said.

Workers are out closing the gaps in the netting. He said the contractor has also just received a more durable and more visible net that is being installed.

"It's kind of a slow process because it's underneath the bridge, and you have to have lane closures at night. Plus, they're working over water, which makes it more complicated," Haus said. He said the work should be done by Sunday.

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