Merbled Murrelet Bird 15 03 2014
The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), a member of the auk family, is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act. Image: USFWS

Good news from America's Pacific coast – at least for one endangered seabird species. A new agreement this week between the Center for Biological Diversity and the California Department of Parks and Recreation will significantly increase protections for the marbled murrelet, a chubby-looking seabird with a pretty unusual avian lifestyle.

In a press release this week, the Center explained that visitor garbage in campgrounds and picnic areas in Big Basin Redwoods State Park – as well as two other redwood national parks, Portola and Butano State Parks – has led to unnaturally high densities of ravens and Steller’s jays, birds that love to feast on murrelet eggs and chicks. Scientists have found that high nest predation is a primary factor driving the declines of murrelets in the region, the press release said.

The equation is simple, according to the US National Park Service: more human food available to jays in an area = more jays in that area = more murrelet eggs eaten and more dead chicks.

The marbled murrelet is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act and threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, with only about 450 individuals surviving in the Santa Cruz Mountains today (the most endangered and southernmost population on the West Coast).

But what's so unusual about the murrelet's lifestyle? The reclusive birds have always been shrouded in mystery ... they even earned the title 'enigmas of the Pacific'. Why? It all comes down to their strange nesting habits. As recently as 1974, scientists didn’t really have a clue where the seabirds reared their young. And that's not really surprising ... nobody expected birds that spend their lives at sea to be nesting many kilometres from water, high up in the branches of ancient redwoods. When the first nest was accidentally discovered by a maintenance worker, the find allowed scientists to finally crack one of the biggest remaining bird-science riddles in the US.  

Marbled Murrelet Redwood Forest 15 03 2014
The old-growth coastal forests the birds depend on for nesting have been decimated by commercial logging. Image: Aaron Barna/USFWS - Pacific Region.

We now know that murrelets fly as far as 80 kilometres (50 miles) inland to lay a single egg high in the old-growth forest canopy, on which the species depends for survival. (This great clip by the US Fish and Wildlife Service gives a nice background to the species and some of the threats it faces.) When incubating and feeding their chick, the adults will cover the distance between nest and coast on countless back-and-forth journeys.

Sadly, commercial logging has decimated 95% of the birds' nesting habitat, leaving mainly just the three redwood state parks in which the birds can rear their young. But even with these supposedly protected areas, at‐sea population monitoring surveys over the past ten years indicate an overall population drop of about 29%. Additional studies linked this decline to a high rate of nest predation, which is compounded by the increase of predator populations that thrive on trash left by visitors to the parks.

That's why this week’s settlement is "great news for murrelets in the Santa Cruz Mountains," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "These remarkable seabirds are dangerously close to extinction, and many park visitors would be shocked to learn that their trash adds to this decline. The new protections will help make sure murrelets have a safe place to nest in our state parks again."

The agreement calls for better trash management systems in the parks, requiring animal-proof food-storage lockers at all campsites, installation of indoor dishwashing stations, and increased trash pickup to prevent dumpster overflow. It also stipulates annual monitoring of the bird’s status and predator numbers, and a comprehensive assessment every three years requiring further action if the murrelet status does not improve.

Finally, an extensive public outreach programme will be launched, making the murrelet a focal point of the parks, and including signs, displays and videos in English and Spanish in all visitor areas to inform the public about how to avoid harming murrelets.

To support or donate to the Center for Biological Diversity’s efforts to protect the marbled murrelet, click here.

To header image: Guy Monty, Flickr