Deadly refuge for unwanted sea birds Culls of gulls: Poisoning of nests raises questions of how man should manage nature.

June 24, 1996

SEA GULLS ARE NOT the most appealing of birds. These "starlings of the sea" are loud, aggressive scavengers and able thieves. Not confined to shoreline, they flock on inland parking lots and landfills, feeding on human refuse like winged rats. Yet there is little justification to eradicate gulls simply because of their adaptive success and occasional nuisance.

Nonetheless, on Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge off Cape Cod, federal workers poisoned the nests of 6,000 gulls in an attempt to restore "avian diversity" on the island and protect two endangered birds, the piping plover and roseate tern. The larger, earlier breeding gulls overrun the nests of these species, kill their young and frighten away adult birds.

This is the first step of a four-year plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to poison the sea gulls before their eggs hatch, and erase from colony memory the thought of Monomoy as a gull nesting place. All to the benefit of plovers and other fragile species.

Results have been unencouraging so far. Poisoned gulls have flown to mainland towns to die, instead of perishing quickly in their nests. Over 10,000 gulls remain. A similar poisoning effort failed there in 1980, as did plans to drive off the gulls with gunshots, dogs and egg destruction. The gulls' dominance persisted.

Man created one of the largest sea gull colonies in the world at Monomoy through the expansion of open garbage dumps along the coast. Yet in recent years, pairs of plovers and terns have increased on the island and on other Massachusetts beaches, while gull numbers have somewhat declined.

That is why the opponents of this culling argue that better control of other beaches from human intrusion and disturbance will do more to recover the threatened species than a killing ground for gulls in the Atlantic. Open dumps are being closed. These steps must be taken before renewing this deadly tinkering with nature.

Pub Date: 6/24/96

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