What comes to mind when you hear the word "Alcatraz?" For most people, it's the image of a prison, Al Capone, or the "Bird Man of Alcatraz." A far less common response? A thriving Western Gull colony; a Pigeon Guillemot scurrying into a nesting cavity on a cliff's edge; or the sound of 70 bathing Brandt's Cormorants splashing their wings in salty bay water while their mates tend to nest duties. Not many people know that Alcatraz provides vital nesting habitat for five species of seabird and one shorebird, all but one endemic to the western coast of North America. (The marine birds that breed on Alcatraz Island are Western Gull, California Gull, Brandt's Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Pigeon Guillemot, and American Black Oystercatcher.)
|Fourth-graders document nesting Brandt's Cormorants on Alcatraz Island. PRBO photo by Lishka Arata.|
"I enjoyed watching baby seabirds staying in their nest and begging for food from their parents. I wish I could watch them grow, learn how to fly, and hunt alone."
--Fourth-grade student in PRBO's Seabird Education Alcatraz program
An urban seabird breeding colony is quite extraordinary: most such colonies are situated on remote islands many miles offshore and rarely visited by humans. Alcatraz, only about a mile from San Francisco, is visited by over a million people each year. Seabirds choose islands for their lack of land-based predators and easy access to marine food sources. While this is true of Alcatraz, its proximity to a bustling metropolitan center subjects the seabirds nesting here to disturbance from land-, water- and air-born human activity.
|Students created conservation posters.|
Motivated by the lack of public awareness about this island's ecological significance, and the opportunity to use Alcatraz as an outdoor classroom, PRBO Education and Outreach staff developed "SEA Alcatraz"--a program in Seabird Education Awareness for fourth- and fifth-grade classes in San Francisco. Our aims are to raise student awareness about seabird ecology and disturbance on Alcatraz, present them with future career options in science, and inspire a new generation of environmental stewards. With generous support from private and public organizations (see page 7) we were able to pilot the program with four groups in the spring of 2008.
The 116 students who participated learned about marine food-web dynamics and conservation, through science-based activities modeled after PRBO's own marine research projects. In the classroom--at Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association on San Francisco's waterfront--they investigated Brandt's Cormorant diet: they dissected regurgitated pellets that contain shells and bones. On a field trip to Alcatraz Island, they observed nesting seabirds, documented disturbance, and interacted with PRBO biologists. With the knowledge they gained, students created colorful outreach posters for the public about the challenges faced by Alcatraz seabirds.
|In the classroom, a student investigates cormorant diet. PRBO photo by Lishka Arata. |
Teachers and students alike offered very encouraging feedback to PRBO educators. Commented one teacher: "The most important message was that what we humans do greatly affects all other living creatures." And another: "The Alcatraz field trip was a true highlight for the students, because most of them had never been on a boat before, even though they live in a city surrounded on three sides by water. They were amazed at how close they could get to the birds."
Students' thank-you letters showed that SEA Alcatraz taught them important lessons about science and conservation.
""When we dissected bird pellets," wrote one, "I felt like a scientist… it was the most grossest, most funniest thing I've ever done!"
Other examples: "I enjoyed watching baby seabirds staying in their nest and begging for food from their parents. I wish I could watch them grow, learn how to fly, and hunt alone."
"I learned we can protect their young and that birds live in colonies."
All four teachers have signed up for the program again next spring, and we plan to include more schools in San Francisco, improving on our pilot by incorporating the results from our student evaluations.
If you now asked the students and adults involved in this program what they imagine when they hear the word "Alcatraz," they would likely answer, "A thriving Western Gull colony... a Pigeon Guillemot darting into its nesting cavity... or 70 Brandt's Cormorants splashing their wings in salty bay water while their mates tend to nests nearby."