For the Birds Radio Program: Vulnerable Waterfront Birds

Original Air Date: May 3, 2017 Rerun Dates: April 26, 2018

Birds that can survive only near water can be seriously jeopardized by selfish people.

Duration: 4′59″


America’s tiniest member of the gull family belongs on coastal beaches from California through the Gulf, up the Atlantic to Maine, and on some sandy areas up the Mississippi River. The dainty “sea swallow” was once abundant along these sandy beaches, but has declined dangerously and dramatically throughout its entire range since the 1960s, and historic numbers were even larger. Least Terns were wonderfully abundant in the early 1800s, until their nesting colonies were decimated by egg hunters and by market hunters supplying the millinery trade. Least Tern feathers, whole wings, and even whole bodies adorned fashionable ladies’ hats.

How serious has the decline been? Breeding Bird Surveys conducted annually since 1966, coordinated by the US Geological Survey, show that the North American population of Least Terns has dropped by 88 percent between 1966 and 2015. One fisherman along the Virginia coast told Arthur Cleveland Bent that in the area where he worked, as many as 100,000 were “collected” in a single breeding season. It’s hard to imagine such a number as 100,000 in one fairly small area now, when the entire North American population is estimated to be between only 60,000 and 100,000, according to the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan.

One of my favorite beaches on the continent is at Popham Beach State Park in Maine; there they’ve figured out how to accommodate the humans who want a fun beach experience while also accommodating the Least Terns and Piping Plovers who need beaches for their very survival. The best area for the birds is roped off along one side of the clear pathway from the bathhouse to the recreational beach. It’s easy for people to see where to go for swimming, kite-flying, and all that. Dogs aren’t allowed at the beach at all, but dog owners are encouraged to use nearby parks where vulnerable birds aren’t nesting.

In Hancock County, Mississippi, some of the people with beachfront property don’t appreciate the intrinsic value of Least Terns, or the concept of stewardship. Audubon Mississippi wanted permission from the county Board of Supervisors to rope off the Least Tern nesting area and post signage to make people aware of this wonderful colony. Audubon volunteers, concerned people of the area, and local businesses want to protect this treasure, but some people with beachfront property are using noise and other means to scare the terns away so they won’t have to share their little piece of heaven with some of the very creatures who make beaches heavenly.

I wrote to the Board of Supervisors, but their decision, a “compromise,” limits the area Audubon can rope off so the private landowners, who of course don’t own the actual beach, can continue to exclude the terns on the beach below their property.

I’ve been thinking about people’s selfishness with regard to sharing waterfront property since Thursday, when high winds and cold were keeping all kinds of exhausted, hungry migrants down all over the place. Those of us on my Duluth Audubon Warbler Walk at Park Point came upon a Marbled Godwit—a gorgeous long-billed shorebird far out of its range. We got long wonderful looks through my spotting scope, but didn’t approach close enough for really superb photos since we didn’t want it to get scared and waste energy flying away from us. When we were closer to the recreation building, we noticed someone running their dog on the ball field right where the godwit had been—now it was nowhere in sight. We refound it later, but that poor bird should not have been displaced for such a trivial recreational purpose.

Then this Tuesday when we were doing our warbler walk on the Western Waterfront Trail, we came upon a cat that was recognized by a few participants—apparently it spends its time walking in the woods, along the water, and in the yards of the houses along the trail. It’s wearing a bell and collar, so its owner is flagrantly violating Duluth’s cat leash ordinance. The little songbirds we encountered—a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers and two or three sparrows—were so cold and hungry that they were spending their time on the ground searching under the leaves for what few insects there were. Last week there were many more there, and I wonder if the cat didn’t reduce the numbers both directly and by scaring things off from one of the best areas in town for migrants to find what food is available. Duluth can’t really afford to enforce the leash law, but a cat posing a clear and present danger to weary migrants does not belong outdoors.

We people take pride in our species being unique for our supreme intelligence. I’m not entirely certain other species aren’t just as smart, but there’s no denying we are an intelligent species. I only wish we’d use that intelligence.