As birds' numbers soar, they gobble fragile species, foul neighborhoods

HAYWARD -- Every summer day, volunteers and park workers stand guard on a small island in San Francisco Bay. At the first sign of a threat, they race into action -- blowing whistles, clapping hands and blasting horns.

Their goal: to do whatever it takes to chase away flocks of voracious sea gulls trying to eat tiny endangered birds called least terns that lay eggs at Hayward Regional Shoreline Park. Occasionally, the East Bay Regional Park District even calls out sharpshooters.

The unusual showdown is a small part of a larger drama. In an alarming trend that has scientists scrambling for answers, the bay's population of California gulls -- squawking, flapping white-and-gray birds that most people associate with the beach -- has exploded from 24 birds in 1980 to more than 53,000 today.

In the past two years alone, their numbers soared 41 percent, making the Bay Area home to the second-largest population of California gulls in the world, behind only Utah's Great Salt Lake.

"It's gone gangbusters," said Dave Shuford, a top Marin County gull biologist. "It's been amazing to follow."

Nobody knows how to stop the population boom. And the problems are mounting: The gulls are increasingly colliding with airplanes, even causing several aborted takeoffs and landings at Bay Area airports. They're swarming landfills, divebombing schools and neighborhoods and gobbling up shorebirds that public agencies have worked for years to bring back from near extinction.

Scientists say the gulls have become a serious threat to the largest wetlands restoration on the West Coast, the effort to restore 15,100 acres of former Cargill industrial salt ponds in the South Bay back to tidal marshes. A central goal of that project, which already has cost taxpayers more than $300 million, is to bring back endangered species.

"This is one of the issues I lose sleep over," said John Bourgeois, who heads the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, a consortium of government agencies.

The gulls have formed 10 huge colonies on bay levees off Union City, Fremont, San Jose and Palo Alto, occasionally venturing as far north as Richmond and Alcatraz.

Onslaught at AT&T

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