Quirky, fluffy and facing a fight for survival. These are three phrases that describe the ancient murrelet, and unfortunately, the latter is becoming all the more pressing.
The murrelet migrates 8,000km from its wintering grounds off the coast of Japan to lays its eggs in Haida Gwaii, the clustered archipelago of 150 rocky islands off the coast of BC, a bizarre journey in that the murrelet goes east to west opposed to the usual north-south migration pattern of birds.
When they arrive in Canadian waters, chicks are laid on shore in underground burrows. Two days later, the fledgling murrelet chick scurries to the water in a midnight raid and swims out to meet their parents, who sing like sirens to guide their offspring to them.
The murrelet, whose chicks look like “these little fluffballs attached to a pair of big feet,” have a unique breeding method, in one of the most unique locations on earth, according to Vivian Pattison, a field biologist who has is working to preserve the murrelet.
Unfortunately, a plague all too common is has descended onto the islands, threatening the existence of the ancient murrelet: rats.
First thought to have been introduced to the islands by ships in WW2, a 1950 survey of one island had the ancient murrelet population at 200,000 breeding pairs. In 1988 when a survey was done again, there were only 20,000.
Rats eat the eggs, they eat the young and they attack and eat the adults as well. Since the murrelets, as with most seabirds in Haida Gwaii, have their nests in burrows underground; this means the rat is able to feast on the ancient murrelet, with devastating consequences.
In response the Canadian Wildlife Service organized the first rat eradication ever attempted, using close to 4,000 poisoned bait stations, similar to a technique New Zealand used in their eradication process. The geography of the islands presents challenges to distributing the poison, so GPS assisted poison drops have also been tried.
The main difficulty, combined with the cost, is the fact the islands are so close together. If rats are eradicated on one island, rats can easily be transported or swim from another island to start a population. And that is bad news, as rats are notoriously efficient breeders.
“If you leave just one pregnant female behind, she can repopulate the whole colony. »– Chris Gill, program director of Coastal Conservation.
One breeding pair can produce 15,000 young in one year.
The ancient murrelet is facing a massive fight against the vermin horde to survive. More will need to be done if this unique bird is to be survived.
Update from July 2018: Rats Return
With conservation, as in life, all good things must come to an end. Unfortunately for the ancient murrelet, this happened all too swiftly; rats have returned to two islands on the Haida Gwaii archipelago, where they had been previously eradicated.
According to CBC, the rats were eradicated in September of 2013, and the islands remained rat-free until infrared sensors detected rats had been re-introduced in November 2017.
Gregg Howald, the North America regional director at Island Conservation, said that how the rat returned to the island is unknown.
“It’s not likely that rats swim over, because the rats were a different species than is present on the adjacent island. We’re doing genetic testing to determine where they came from,” he said.
“There are protected anchorages nearby, so it’s possible someone from the fishing community, or from the coast guard could have accidentally introduced the rats.”
Due to the vast amount of coastline in the area, narrowing down the source of the accidental introduction is difficult, said Howald.
“We’re looking at all the options. Shipping traffic could have come from the south, or from Alaska, it’s impossible to inspect all ships that are coming in, it’s a very remote spot,” he said.
However, Howald said the work Parks Canada is doing is having positive effects.
“The education program within Haida Gwaii is frankly, excellent. There is good engagement with the community, there is a high awareness and rat prevention kits and traps are provided.”
Feature image by Glen Miller, a photo contest submission.