On the Fourth of July, a large group of visitors to tiny Sand Island off the coast of Alabama decided to play volleyball on the beach. But there was a problem: bird nests filled with eggs were in the way of where they wanted to play.
So, did the tourists look for another spot to create a volleyball court? Nope. They scooped up the unhatched eggs and scared away the adult birds. Then they “actually made a little dome of sand and placed the eggs around it to decorate it,” Andrew Haffenden, a wildlife researcher who was conducting a bird survey for Birmingham Audubon when he discovered the relocated eggs, told AL.com.
By removing the eggs from their nests, the tourists may have killed hundreds of federally protected least terns — small, white shorebirds with black caps that weigh no more than 1.5 ounces. They lay their grape-sized eggs inside shallow holes they make in the sand on a wide stretch of the beach. Female birds sit on these nests to keep the eggs cool and prevent them from literally baking in the hot summer sun.
To protect their eggs from threats like big waves, larger birds, foxes and other predators, least terns nest in colonies of dozens to hundreds of pairs of birds. Their nests are only a foot or two apart.
“I always refer to them as the world’s best parents,” Katie Barnes, chief biologist for Birmingham Audubon’s Coastal Program, told the New York Times.
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While the Washington Post headline about this disturbing incident said the tourists “accidentally” killed the birds, there’s nothing at all accidental about it. They intentionally disturbed all those unhatched eggs, so they could selfishly play volleyball on the beach.
“It’s pretty nasty”: Beach volleyball players in Alabama accidentally kill hundreds of birds https://t.co/lCexdhL4RP
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) August 9, 2018
“The thing about the eggs, people think, ‘Oh, they’re eggs,’ but they are also almost fully formed chicks inside. They can walk almost as soon as they hatch,” Haffenden told AL.com. “In that pile of eggs, there were a number that were about to hatch. In fact, if you look at the pictures of the pile you can see an egg that showed pipping [cracks where a chick is pecking its way out of the shell]. What the people did was take those eggs away from the protection of the parents from the sun. So we had dozens of functional chicks die by being baked. It’s pretty nasty.”
Haffenden said he’d seen “swirls of the birds” flying around the small island before he counted 17 boats docked there on the Fourth of July – “so I was pretty disturbed,” he told AL.com. He estimated that hundreds of birds, frightened by the onslaught of people, would have left their nests.
None of the people who moved the eggs have yet been identified. Least terns are included under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was enacted 100 years ago to protect birds from people. The act makes it illegal for anyone to take their eggs without a federal permit. The penalty is $15,000 and up to a year in jail.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was immediately contacted and is investigating the case. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources was also alerted and is patrolling the island.
To prevent more birds from being killed, Birmingham Audubon has roped off nesting areas on Sand Island and posted signs informing visitors about least terns and urging them to respect their nests. It seems to be working. “We have not seen a human footprint in the area,” Barnes told AL.com. “Boaters have not pulled up to that area.”
There is some good news for least terns on Sand Island: There was a population boom this year. In fact, according to Barnes, their colony might be the largest on record in Alabama. While it’s tragic that hundreds of birds were killed for a volleyball game, Barnes told AL.com the island “has still been a big success for these birds.”
Please please sign and share this petition urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to charge the tourists not only with violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but with animal cruelty to the fullest extent of the law.
Want to make a difference on an issue you find deeply troubling? You, too, can create a Care2 petition, and use this handy guide to get started. You’ll find Care2’s vibrant community of activists ready to step up and help you.
Photo credit: Jane Ledwin/USFWS