When campers and picnickers leave crumbs and food about the redwood forest, they unwittingly threaten a small but heroic seabird. A high school volunteer project helps mitigate the danger.
by Leslie Willoughby
Nov. 23, 2016—Ponderosa High School students clamber out of their van, ready to work. Under the redwood canopy at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, 10 a.m. looks like dawn. October sunlight slowly warms the 50-degree air. It’s a good day to install wildlife-proof food lockers. And it’s a crucial time to protect a threatened seabird.
The students offload six dumpster-sized metal lockers from a truck bed. Then they carry each locker to a trail campsite, where they shave the ground. Later they dig a foundation, pour concrete, install a pipe to bolt to the locker, and level the locker.
“It’s hard work, but it’s really satisfying to see what you did,” says student Charlie Thompson.
Ponderosa, an alternative high school in Ben Lomond, promotes work skills. In the classroom, teens tackle projects such as building a boat. Outside school, students build a robust resume and polish soft work skills.
“They learn to show up on time, shake hands and keep eye contact when introduced,” says teacher Desiree Hunt. “And they learn to work with a diverse team.”
Each week, students work on assignments with local public agencies and nonprofits. Working alongside a park ranger may alter a student’s perception of police or suggest a new career path, says Hunt. At California State Parks, for example, they clear brush and maintain trails. They began locker installation on October 7 and continued the work across three subsequent Fridays. In total, a dozen individuals participated in the project.
“It feels really nice at the end of the day,” says student Bowie Webb. “It’s great being outside.”
The Crumb Clean Connection to Marbled Murrelets
Each locker holds up to four fully provisioned backpacks. Thanks to Ponderosa students, campers can lock up their packs rather than store them in their tents. This practice may help conserve a local bird listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
“Has anyone ever heard of the marbled murrelet?” asks ranger Alex Tabone. None of the Ponderosa students respond. “That’s no wonder,” says Tabone. “They are an obscure bird.”
The stubby, robin-sized seabirds commute up to 45 miles from the ocean, their food source. They nest in old-growth redwoods on branches over ten inches in diameter. High off the ground, they escape foxes and raccoons. Deep in the forest, they hide from predators overhead such as ravens and jays. They were so well hidden that no one knew their nesting habits until 1974. That’s when a nest was discovered at Big Basin State Park.
But the rising population of some flying predators is posing a fresh threat to the marbled murrelet. Tabone sees this predicament as a rallying cry to protect the small seabirds. “What are we most proud of here in Santa Cruz County?” he asks. “We're proud of our beaches and our ocean, we’re proud of our redwood trees. And this animal connects them.”
Pounding surf and towering redwoods lure residents to the county. But we pay rising costs for scarce housing and work harder to earn our keep. Like ours, the marbled murrelet's way of life is also threatened.
By not disposing of food properly, humans have increased the numbers of ravens and jays, birds of the “corvid” family, in the park. Christmas bird counts of the 1980s listed no ravens in the redwood forest, as Tabone recalls. “Now there are tons,” he says. He has recently seen crows—another corvid—at the park for the first time in the four years since he started work here.
These smart, stealthy birds raid human food stashes at campsites and descend on picnic areas to pick the tables clean of crumbs. This unnatural energy source provides an advantage to survive and reproduce. The cost of increasing lifespans and numbers of corvids may be counted in marbled murrelets’ eggs—females lay only one per year, and corvids eat them.
Widespread Threats, An Opportunity for Action
Additionally, the elusive seabirds now have fewer places to hide their young. They prefer redwoods that are over two centuries old for their nests, according to allaboutbirds.org. But since logging began during the Gold Rush, less than five percent of the original old growth forest remains.
As marbled murrelets struggle to raise chicks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed newly identified threats to the way they make a living. These include abandoned fishing gear, toxic algal blooms and changes in food quality.
Ocean threats are widespread. Generations must pass before old growth forest matures. But the increase in corvids, at least, may be slowed or stopped here and now. When campers lock up their backpacks, they lock out corvids and lock in a brighter future for the marbled murrelet.