The islands off Yaquina Head in Oregon have always been just right for nesting seabirds. Isolation from the mainland gives them safety from mammalian predators, a very important feature for colonial birds. Colonies of nesting birds would be sure to attract predators such as coyotes, foxes, raccoons, and other carnivorous mammals, but apparently most of these mammals are not inclined to swim to offshore islands, so birds that nest on these islands are relatively safe.
These are scenes from Yaquina Head on 6 May 2011. A great colony of Common Murres has been there for many years, occupying the tops of several of the islands. In addition, large numbers of Brandt’s Cormorants nest among the murres and on lower ledges, and Pelagic Cormorants and Pigeon Guillemots fill in other parts of the islands.
The colony was flourishing during our visit, probably several thousand murres and good numbers of the other species. But the colony faced threats like never before. Bald Eagles have continued to increase every year since the banning of DDT in North America, and they are proving very effective predators on colonial nesting birds. Once the birds began to lay eggs, eagles disturbed the colony daily, taking both adult and young murres as well as eggs, and the massive disturbances caused by their presence enabled crows, ravens and gulls to take additional eggs and young.
Unexpectedly, Brown Pelicans proved almost as great a threat. Immature birds, not old enough to return to breeding colonies, stayed at Yaquina Head through the summer and visited the murre colony regularly. Walking and flapping through the colony, they picked up dropped fish and then began picking up young birds to get them to disgorge their fish. If that wasn’t enough, they also began to swallow the chicks whole. Many more chicks fell from their nesting ledges and drowned in the surf. Further disturbance was caused by Turkey Vultures that visited the colony.
During 372 hours of monitoring the colony in 2011, observers from the Hatfield Marine Science Center recorded 186 disturbance events, during which 1034 eggs, 142 chicks, and 70 adult murres were taken. Depredation rates were three to ten times higher than in previous years. Researchers estimated that no more than 28% of murre pairs successfully raised chicks to fledging age. Cormorants, much more spread out and with larger chicks, appeared to suffer much less mortality.
Interestingly, not only Bald Eagles but also Brown Pelicans and Turkey Vultures are increasing in the Pacific Northwest in recent years, perhaps all as a result of the removal of DDT from the environment. A new balance may be struck as one set of species becomes less common as previously rare species increase. How will we protect the murres now that we have protected their predators?