Fighting to Save an Endangered Bird, with Vomit

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A psychological warfare program centered on vomit could help save the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that nests in California's old-growth redwood forests.

The robin-sized murrelet lives at sea but lays one pointy, blue-green egg each year on the flat, mossy branch of a redwood. While breeding, its back feathers morph from black to mottled brown to better match the forest. For two months, both parents race back and forth to the coast as far as 50 miles (80 kilometers) each day at speeds of up to 98 mph (158 km/h) while evading peregrine falcon and hawk attacks. After the chick hatches, it pecks off its redwood-colored down and, flying solo, launches straight for the ocean. Penguins have nothing on the murrelet.

"They're a seabird like a puffin, and they have this crazy lifestyle that's like a living link between the old-growth redwood forests and the Pacific Ocean," said Keith Bensen, a biologist at Redwood National Park. "It's strange to have an animal with webbed feet in the forest," he said.

Despite its amazing skills, the marbled-murrelet population is down by more than 90 percent from its 19th-century numbers in California, thanks to logging, fishing and pollution. Murrelets live as far north as Alaska, but the central California population is most at risk. Yet even though the state's remaining old-growth redwood trees are now protected, the murrelets continue to disappear.

The culprit: the egg-sucking, chick-eating Steller's jay.

About 4,000 murrelets remain in California, with about 300 to 600 in central California's Santa Cruz Mountains. Squirrels, ravens and owls also swipe murrelet eggs, but jays are the biggest thieves in California, gobbling up 80 percent of each year's brood. Unless more eggs survive, the central California population will go extinct within a century, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Biological Conservation.

To boost California's murrelet numbers, biologists in California's Redwood National and State Parks are fighting back against Steller's jays and their human enablers.

VIDEO: Why Endangered Species are Doomed

With cash earmarked for murrelets from offshore-oil-spill restoration funds, the parks have the rare ability to fund research studies and restore habitat. The two-pronged approach will teach the black-crested jays to avoid murrelet eggs on pain of puking. More importantly, it will shrink the jay population by thwarting access to their primary food source — human trash and food. [Image Gallery: Saving the Rare Marbled Murrelet]

"Every time folks throw out crumbs to bring out jays and squirrels, it's having a real impact on a very rare bird nesting overhead in an old-growth redwood tree," Bensen told OurAmazingPlanet.

A Western bird, the blue and black Steller's jays like to frequent cleared forest edges — which are filled with bugs and berry bushes — and campgrounds littered with tasty trash and crumbs. As humans spend more time in the forest, the jay's numbers are booming. Their density in campgrounds is nine times higher than in other forest areas, said Portia Halbert, an environmental scientist with the California State Parks.

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