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    To save birds, feds hope to drive mice from Farallon Islands

    NewsBird NewsTuesday 18 October 2011
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    Melissa Pitkin's, a member of the Marin-based PRBO Conservation Science, hand darts into a rocky crevasse beneath a stone wall, emerging moments later with a fluffy gray chick.

    The fluttering bird in Pitkin's hand is an ashy storm-petrel -- one of the 13 species of birds that nest on the wave-battered shores of the Farallon Islands, and one of only 10,000 to 15,000 ashy storm-petrels worldwide. About half of those birds live in the Farallones, a remote and desolate series of islands 27 miles outside the Golden Gate that supports the largest breeding colony of seabirds south of Alaska.

    Most of those birds -- gulls, oystercatchers and auklets -- departed at the end of the summer. But the ashy storm-petrel is something special: one of the smallest and shyest birds in the islands, active mainly at night and spending most of its time at sea.

    Ashy storm-petrels can live a long time -- an average of 20 years, with at least one bird living to the ripe old age of 36. But they're in trouble. The petrels of the Farallones are falling victim to a most unlikely enemy. And efforts by members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save them has plunged the Farallon Islands into controversy.

    One unpleasant legacy of the islands' past remains: the common house mouse, which arrived with fur traders sometime in the 19th century. The sands and cliff walls of Southeast Farallon are honeycombed with mouse holes, and in the fall -- when the mice are most numerous -- tiny brown heads pop up constantly from the sand, as though the entire island was a giant Whac-a-Mole game.

    The mice themselves don't seem to bother birds like the ashy storm-petrel. But their presence on the island has had an unusual effect on its annual gathering of migratory birds. About 160 different species of birds arrive in the islands each fall, some from the eastern United States, some from as far away as New Zealand.

    One of those visiting birds is the burrowing owl. Under ordinary circumstances, the owls show up in the fall, stay for a month or so, and then continue on their migratory journey. But the presence of the mice -- a scampering smorgasbord for owls -- has changed things.

    Source: Mercury News

     

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