The Bizarre Plan to Save the Marbled Murrelet

This bird may be saved from extinction through the use of psychological warfare against its nemesis.
The marbled murrelet was once ubiquitous along the western coastline. (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)
May 19, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

The marbled murrelet is an extraordinary little bird that actually lives at sea, but nests its eggs deep inside California's redwood forests. The females lay only one egg and both parents move back and forth, up to 50 miles from the forest to the sea, in order to keep the egg warm and forage for food.

But these careful little creatures have seen their populations cut down by 90 percent since the 1900s, due in part to human encroachment and pollution. The other part of the equation is that in recent years, forest populations of their nemesis—the Steller's Jays—have swelled astronomically, and as any conservationist will tell you, jays are insatiable, little thieves—stealing and eating the majority of murrelet eggs laid each season.

According to LiveScience, if the jays continue to devour the murrelets' blue-green eggs, researchers surmise the murrelet population will be extinct well within this century.

That’s why California's redwood parks have embarked upon a unique plan. For the last several seasons, in select areas, they’ve strategically placed eggs decorated to look like murrelet eggs, but they've added a special ingredient to them—carbachol, an odorless, tasteless chemical that almost immediately induces vomiting after a tiny swallow.

Researchers found the particular dosage needed to induce vomiting without causing further harm to the predators. More importantly, the birds who eat the decoys form an indelible link between murrelet eggs and sickness. It’s essentially a poisoning—but only a temporary, non-lethal kind. And it does work.

Some of the areas tested have already seen an 80 percent drop in murrelet egg theft.

Portia Halbert, an environmental scientist with the California State Parks told LiveScience, “It's worked amazingly well,” she said. “We've found a significant decrease in predations by jays, the number of times eggs get broken.”

Last spring, researchers spread hundreds of these vomit-inducing eggs in Butano State Park and Portola Redwoods Park in the Santa Cruz mountains—and this season, they widened that egg-drop area and plan to add more state parks to the plan.

But in addition to teaching the jays that murrelet eggs aren’t for eating, park rangers are also trying to teach their human visitors that jays aren’t for feeding. The biggest cause of jay populations swelling in the redwood forests has been the people who visit them. They regularly feed these birds—either on purpose, or by proxy through the trash they leave behind.

Carolyn Ward, an expert in public education, is spearheading a new marketing campaign this summer season to drive home the message that feeding birds isn’t the act of kindness that park visitors believe it to be. A full-throttle, in-park marketing campaign launching this season is expected to drive that message home.

In the meantime, none of the parks are hoping that these efforts wipe out jay populations—those birds are an integral part of the redwoods’ ecosystem. But these measures will ensure that human activity isn’t artificially driving up their numbers, which in turn artificially drives down the murrelet population.

Aside from splitting their time between the sea and forest, marbled murrelets are known for their fast flying; they can gain speeds up to about 90 mph, and the North American coast used to be full of them. These days, skies once home to these speeding birds are eerily still.

While vomit-inducing eggs and negative psychology may not be the traditional undertakings of conservation authorities, they may be exactly what's needed to finally reverse this species' quick march to extinction.

What's your take on the murrelet conservation efforts? Are they necessary, or are they acts of cruelty against the jays? Let us know in the Comments.