After a weekend of camping at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, I decided to write about the imperiled marbled murrelet, and efforts to reduce the threats to this endangered species. Here’s my Marbled Murrelet story, with an excerpt below:
Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute
California State Parks urging campers to clean up after themselves, in a novel effort to protect the endangered marbled murrelet
By Sena Christian
When campers register at the headquarters of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, they receive the usual trail map and, for the past couple years, instructions on how to be “crumb clean” and why this matters to the fate of the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird about the size of a robin.
California State Parks launched its “keep it crumb clean” campaign to educate visitors about the importance of never feeding wildlife and picking up after themselves. The campaign has been propelled forward by a 2014 lawsuit settlement agreement with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, which had claimed the government was failing to protect the bird under its new general plan for Big Basin. The planned expansion of public uses and infrastructure in the bird’s habitat exacerbated the species’ risk for extinction, according to the lawsuit.
“Education is such a big part of the solution,” says Shaye Wolf, a wildlife biologist and the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Most park visitors would be heartbroken to learn their trash is contributing to the decline of this beautiful, endangered seabird … What we’re trying to do with the settlement is educate and increase public participation in the solution.”
The marbled murrelet’s low reproductive rate makes it especially vulnerable. A mature female lays only one egg high in the mossy branches of ancient coast redwoods (or other conifer such as firs) that stretch up the Pacific coastline from central California into Oregon, Washington, and as far north as Alaska. The parents take turns incubating the egg and flying miles away to the ocean to eat herring, smelt and anchovies and then returning to feed the nestling. A mere month or so after hatching, a chick will make its first flight to the ocean. That is, if it survives till then.
Murrelets face a mighty foe in corvid predators — mainly Stellar’s jays and ravens that are intelligent enough to know food follows humans. When these birds finish foraging around people, they notice murrelet nests high in the trees and attack the eggs and chicks. Jays are a natural part of the forest ecosystem, and murrelets evolved under their predatory pressure. But the corvid’s population has exploded throughout the park, along with the once-rare raven that is now a common sight.
“Whenever there are people, there is food, and whenever there is food, there will be animals taking advantage of that,” says Portia Halbert, the environmental scientist with State Parks who oversees the “crumb clean” campaign in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Some 1.5 million people visit Big Basin State Park each year. An estimated 400 to 600 murrelets exist in the entire Santa Cruz mountain range.