It's a good thing birds don't carry shotguns, or get to make life-or-death decisions about "predator species."
If they did, we humans might be in big trouble.
But they don't, and we do, which is the point driven home by a pair of unrelated stories that ran in Sunday's Press Democrat.
The story on Page 1, from the San Jose Mercury News, described the "plague" of gulls that has descended on the Bay Area in recent years, making a huge mess and threatening to wipe out the endangered least terns that lay their eggs at Hayward Regional Shoreline Park. The California gull explosion – from just 24 birds left in 1980 to 53,000 today, prompted a Gilroy man to suggest that someone "just go around and collect the damn eggs and throw them in the garbage. There's too damn many to shoot."
The story on Page A9, from the Associated Press, told of successful efforts to save the once-endangered peregrine falcon, a raptor that come back to the point that its beefed-up numbers now pose a threat to endangered shorebirds' breeding sites in Southern California. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will no longer allow good Samaritans to rescue peregrine chicks from Bay Area highway bridges, which will likely lead to a lot of cute little chicks dropping into the water to drown.
Call it, as the headline writer did, the Peregrine Paradox. You work to save a species from extinction, and the effort succeeds to the point that that species threatens another species with extinction. So you try to figure out ways to kill off some of the first species, in order to save the next one.
You see where this is leading, right?
The problem, for both gull and peregrine managers, is that the general public frowns on bird massacres. So they can't just go out and shoot thousands of gulls, and they're already getting pushback about drowned peregrine chicks that won't even hatch until next spring. So they're trying to come up with better solutions.
They've already crossed poison off the list. That was tried 17 years ago off of Cape Cod, where an explosion of black-backed and herring gulls threatened to wipe out piping plovers and roseate terns in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. But the poisoned gulls didn't just die in the refuge. Some of them lived long enough to fly into the airspace over the rich vacation homes of the Cape, and then dropped out of the sky "in people's pools and yards and on playgrounds," a refuge manager told the Mercury News. "There was a public uproar."
I would imagine.
Forty years ago, only 11 peregrine falcons were known to be living in California. Today, it's about 2,000. And part of the reason for that is every year people like Glenn Stewart of the U.C. Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group climb under bridges and rescue peregrine chicks before they topple into the unforgiving waters of San Francisco Bay. Stewart was told he won't be given a permit to rescue birds next spring, and he says the decision is "dumbfounding."
"Yes peregrines are recovered," he told the AP. "But should we let this sometimes vigorously protected and sometimes left-to-drown resource be squandered?"
The answer may depend on how you feel about endangered shorebirds.