Los Farallones

Dispatches from Point Blue’s field station on the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge

The darker side…

By | June 16, 2010

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Common Murre with a fresh egg

Not too long ago, it felt like Easter. Eggs were popping up all over the place – Western Gulls, Pigeon Guillemots, Ashy Storm Petrels, Common Murres, Brandt’s Cormorants, Cassin’s Auklets, and Rhinoceros Auklets – just about all the birds on the island. It’s so contagious that even the Farallon Weed has started resprouting. While most of these birds are still laying eggs, some have started to hatch.

Cassin’s Auklet chick
Cassin’s Auklets were the first with their little gray fuzz balls. As of the first of this month, we got our first Pigeon Guillemot chick, a little black fuzz ball. Others, Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres, have started hatching within the last week. Even to hardened biologists, hatchlings are very cute and always bring out a collective “Aww.” They are small soft balls of fluff that fit in your hand and are so sweet because they don’t know how to defend themselves yet.

But, no matter how adorable, one of the recent additions to our hatchlings also brings a sense of dread.

Newly hatched Western Gull Chicks

How can these innocent little creatures inspire such feelings? Let me explain.

When I arrived in April, I was a clean, relatively innocent intern arriving to a rather quiet island. Birds were calling, but all were nice. They weren’t breeding yet, so they didn’t have anything to defend. If they happened to be in your path, they just moved out of the way as you approached. Once “Easter” arrived, the noise level of the island started to increase exponentially (to a volume and pitch that I am certain will contribute to future hearing loss) and birds no longer moved out of your way. Instead, they attack you for coming into their territory.
Western Gull in attack mode
Western gulls are by far the most aggressive defenders of their nests. They have a very distinctive call that they scream at you as you approach their nest. If that isn’t enough to make you go away, they try to nip at you (and sometimes succeed), or they swoop back and forth over you in a U-shape, making a terrorizing call mere seconds before depositing a generous helping of stinky guano on your person. If none of these attempts have chased you to leave their territory, they will resort to the full aerial assault. They will fly down at your face or head, attempting to hit you with their feet or their bill. Often adding more guano to the arsenal.  I have been hit in the head by a gull’s bill and whacked on the shoulder by their feet and it hurts a lot more than you would expect. It’s amazing the force and power that those Western Gulls have. And this just gets worse as time goes on. Imagine getting hit repeatedly in the head with no respite, wearing clothes without an inch of clean space and that is what life here on the island is soon to become.
Field jacket afert checking gull nests

My patchwork duct tape pants and slowly degrading jacket (already severely worn from climbing, sliding, shimmying around on the granite slopes) are being tortured further by getting covered in various colors, and smells, of Western Gull excretions. While my head is gradually being bashed in by these callous, cold-hearted birds. I am no longer the innocent intern. No longer do I go outside without something covering my head. I know which birds require the extra adornment of a hard hat. Earplugs are permanently stored in my pockets for easy use.

So it is important to remember that while chicks are cute, they bring vicious, merciless adults with them, which they will later become if they fledge. Inside those delightful downy balls beats a cold, cold heart.

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