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Innovative tactics are helping restore seabird colonies.
On Maine’s Matinicus Rock, if it looks like a common murre and sounds like a common murre, it’s probably a fake. Since 1992 members of Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program have put out decoys to lure the penguinlike birds back to their historic nesting site on the island, one of 50 in Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts paid off in July, when a female laid an egg, marking the first time since 1883 that murres have bred on the East Coast south of Canada.
“Over the last 17 years more and more murres have been coming to the island, interacting with the decoys, courting, and looking very nesty,” says Steve Kress, who heads the project. “But they’d be gone by the end of July, having done everything short of laying an egg.” The egg was nestled among 147 murres, the most ever counted, sitting around decoys.
Common murres breed in Canada’s Maritime Provinces and along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California, but Maine’s nesting sites have been barren of eggs since people overhunted the birds for food in the 1800s. Reestablishing those sites is important because murres are particularly vulnerable to oil spills and predation, so new colonies within their historic range offer critical safeguards.
Forty seabird species in 12 countries have benefited from Kress’s pioneering techniques, including the use of decoys, fake eggs, and bird calls. His first success was attracting Atlantic puffins to Maine in 1973; since then the burgeoning population has increased from zero to 101 pairs. Another scheme moved short-tailed albatross off an active volcano in Japan to a safer site (see “Raising Shorties,” January-February 2008). “It’s one of a suite of tools that’s useful for restoring seabird colonies, and often it can speed the process along,” says Ben Lascelles of Birdlife International, who has worked on common and roseate tern restoration.
Biologist Daniel Roby has seen Caspian terns respond rapidly to the methods. In Oregon, development has left few nesting islands, so each summer 21,000 terns crowd onto East Sand Island near the mouth of the Columbia River, where they gorge on up to seven million juvenile steelhead and salmon—many of which belong to endangered or threatened species. To protect the fish, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is building new islands along tern migration routes in Oregon, northern California, and San Francisco Bay. The four built last year featured decoys and audio playback of squawking terns. “The techniques have worked so well for us that, after a year, we don’t need them anymore at some sites,” says Roby, who monitors the birds.
Success doesn’t always come easily, though. In Maine, elation turned to sadness when the team found only shell fragments 10 days after the egg was discovered, indicating that a predator had nailed it. But Kress is optimistic: “This pair of birds will likely be back next year, and then we’ll have a chance to raise the first chick. The expectation is very high that there will be more eggs and this colony will start.”
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