Until recently, extinction was a natural and complex process where some species survived and others went extinct at the whim of mother nature (and with the help of some handy adaptations). Today, it is much more like the reality show, “Survivor”, where groups must fend for themselves in the wild while also competing in man-made challenges to survive to the next round. Contestants are slowly eliminated until there is one “sole survivor;” and the show is over. The same thing is happening for wildlife today, minus the million dollar prize and the ability to change the channel.
If you ran into one of these “survivors” on the street, you may get star-struck. This is what happens to me when I see seabirds. There are 346 species of seabirds in the world, and most don’t poop on your car in the parking lot at the beach. These are the superstars that evolved in the wildest of conditions. They live a life at-sea in search of food over thousands of miles, yet they breed almost exclusively on the most remote islands. Here, seabirds build nests in trees, set them on the ground, or claw out their own tunnel with their extremely sharp bill and nails to lay eggs and rear chicks underground. But 30% of all seabird species are threatened with extinction. This means that 1 in 3 species that you may observe is a “survivor” but whose team is being slowly eliminated. So when I go to the coast or out to sea, like near my home in Monterey Bay, I don’t just see gulls stealing hot dogs. I see incredibly large and beautiful fish-eating birds that migrated to the region from islands as far away as New Zealand and who survived an awe-inspiring set of challenges (both natural and man-made) along the way.
Take the Pink-footed Shearwater as an example. As the name says, this seabird has light pink feet, and a pink bill, and visits the North Pacific coast in the summer and fall. During these seasons, I often see them within the dense flocks of Sooty Shearwaters or around pods of dolphins and whales that are all circling Monterey Bay while feasting on the fishy riches that have made the region famous. But, Pink-footed Shearwaters breed over 6,500 miles away on three Chilean islands: Isla Mocha, off the central Chilean coast, and two islands that are part of the Juan Fernández Islands.
If this were an episode of Survivor, the first episode would take place on these islands. The first challenge for a Pink-footed Shearwater starts when it is just an egg laid in an underground burrow. If it hatches, then the egg survived the threat of being eaten by cats, dogs, or rats, which are all common pets and pests introduced to the islands over the years by early explorers and inhabitants. The second challenge: as fluffy, down-covered chicks. Shearwaters must again avoid being eaten, especially during an annual chick harvest, a custom that began in the 1930’s when people settled on the island of Mocha. The third challenge is surviving inside the underground burrow. Chicks wait underground for up to a week for a meal to be delivered to them from the sea; they rely upon successful foraging of fish by their parents. It is during this time that the burrow can also be trampled by cows, another introduced species.
If it survives all these challenges, within about four months, the shearwater emerges from its burrow, its downy coat having transformed to shiny waterproofed feathers. It waddles its way to the nearest, tallest tree or rock, climbs its way to the top, and catches the wind; off to sea it goes. Here it forages for fish, squid and krill in the open ocean, moving onto the next episode where it must avoid run-ins with fishermen, entanglement in nets, and a belly full of plastic debris. When a Pink-footed Shearwater finally makes it to Monterey Bay, I get the chance to see it and stare in awe and respect of their long journey and ninja survival strategies. They’ve survived this year, but will they be back the next?
Fortunately, many people are working tirelessly to make sure Pink-footed Shearwaters can continue their magnificent voyage between the northern and southern hemispheres. Like on TV, shearwaters are getting help behind the scenes, which is why I and other seaward viewers have the chance to continue to watch the show. Government and non-profit organizations throughout the species’ range – from the U.S. to Chile – have taken actions that undeniably increase survival. Introduced species have been controlled or removed from some islands, and fences have been built to keep wandering cattle away from nests. This is an ongoing and truly collaborative effort between Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), the Juan Fernández Islands Conservancy (JFIC), Island Conservation, Oikonos, and the communities on Juan Fernández and Mocha. Oikonos and local schools are also facilitating education programs on the island of Mocha, which is home to two-thirds of all Pink-footed Shearwaters. They are teaching schoolkids about the seabirds, increasing awareness, and inspiring pride for the unique island species. This helps the shearwaters and also provides the islanders a symbol of their uniqueness. Finally, important protected areas, such as the Isla Mocha National Reserve, have been established around shearwater nesting areas and fishermen are conscientious about avoiding run-ins with shearwaters and other seabirds. In fact, thanks to important outreach and education programs, fishermen watch seabird behaviors to track patches of fish but try to avoid setting nets that may simultaneously kill them.
In our current world where wildlife are disappearing at unprecedented rates, conservation efforts, such as the ones in Chile for Pink-footed Shearwaters, are tangible and have a big impact. Controlling or removing introduced species that have un-naturally appeared on islands has a profoundly positive impact on seabird survival. Similarly, establishing protected areas and increasing education are effective long-term solutions for maintaining critical habitat and maintaining a sustainable relationship between people and wildlife. So, the next time you observe a seabird, whether or not it has pink feet, think about what it likely endured to get where it is. Hopefully it does not poop on you, but if it does, consider yourself lucky, that bird had to go through an amazing journey to give you that little present.
*A big thanks to the folks at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center in Santa Cruz, Ca, and to Peter Hodum and Ryan Carle from Oikonos for sharing their knowledge, photos, and stories about Pink-footed Shearwaters.
For more information about the Pink-Footed Shearwater and birds that visit the Monterey Bay, check out these websites:
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