Don’t run through the birds!
We’ve all seen it before: a large public square, maybe New York City or a larger ancient public square in a foreign country filled with resting pigeons. A small child spots them and runs through, causing the flock to disperse. Or, a hand-holding couple walks through the resting flock only to suddenly embrace while pigeons take flight. Is it beautiful? Some people think so, especially film makers, and so now it’s the “thing” to run or walk through a flock of resting birds, flushing them out.
But for the birds, it is the wrong thing to do. I cannot speak for the pigeons but I will speak for the migratory shorebirds that rest along the Florida shoreline this time of year.
Migratory birds fly hundreds of miles to stopover at our beaches along the Gulf Coast. They fly at night and rest in colonies for protection. For some, this is a layover before heading farther north in the late winter. So, that group of birds you see during your beach walk are tired. Some in the center are sleeping while the outer circle are on guard.
Migratory shorebirds need their energy to either fly further or to start nesting.
When startled, the birds scramble to get away from the predator: you. The sleeping birds are jarred out of sleep and know they must fly because the other birds are doing so. Instinct tells them they’re in danger and must take flight. Since the birds are resting so closely together, they risk injuring their wings as they hastily take flight. Injured shorebirds cannot fly further to their nesting spots. They cannot fly to hunt for food and risk death.
Not all birds nest in trees. Many of the birds that come here to the Gulf Coast beaches are beach nesters. They nest in the dunes, near beach grasses, or out in the open, The nest is a shallow scrape in the sand. It’s barely deep enough for eggs and the parent to sit in so shorebird nests are difficult to spot.
The colony of birds on the beach may be protecting nests with eggs or hatchlings.
When a person flushes the colony, the birds scatter leaving the nests, the eggs, or the hatchlings vulnerable to predators. Sea gulls or fish crows can swoop in and take the eggs or chicks. The sun’s heat can damage the eggs or overheat the chicks. And since shorebird eggs are so well camouflaged and the nests are hard to find, the person running through the bird colony can step on eggs, or cause injury or death to the chicks.
Even after the chicks hatch, they need a couple of months to learn to fly and become self-sufficient. If they cannot fly yet, you have put in harm’s way.
Danger to children
Although it looks like fun for a small child to flush the birds, please keep your children away from shorebirds on the beach. A child, getting caught in the flurry of confused wing flapping is at risk for getting injured as well. Frightened birds may also defecate which could land on your child.
Keep your distance
If the birds become agitated and start to move away, then you are too close.
The child or adult who runs toward them with the goal of flushing the group to watch them fly around, is causing confusion and possibly injury.
Many of our shorebirds are on a national or state, endangered or threatened species list. They are federally protected and causing harm on purpose is illegal in many jurisdictions. In Florida is it illegal to disturb or harm wildlife. If you see someone not following the rules or spot an animal in distress, please call the FWC Wildlife Alert Hotline at either 888-404-FWCC or *FWC. You might be surprised by the number of calls they get; don’t be the person being called on.
Shorebirds and pets
Many beaches are closed to pets. This also includes your cat. Take your dog to a dog-friendly designated beach. The rental office you booked your vacation with or the local visitors bureau website will direct you to the beaches that allow dogs. Do not let your cat roam the beach. They prey on birds and the endangered beach mouse (on the north Gulf Coast). It is possible they could dig up turtle eggs, too. Board your pet while on vacation if these rules are not possible to follow.
Pledge to protect
Pledge to save the chicks by protecting nesting shorebirds. Enjoy your time at the beach but remember that it is not your home rather it is home to wildlife. Please respect their home.