Clever Solution Saves Thousands of Seabird Chicks in California

Baby birds need a safe spot out of the water.

haulouts with elegant terns
Floating platforms called haulouts give chicks a safe place out of the water.

Russ Curtis / International Bird Rescue

Several thousand baby seabirds in Southern California are thriving thanks to an innovative solution by animal rescuers.

In late spring, a colony of about 10,000 elegant terns was displaced from their preferred nesting site at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Orange County. These medium-sized slim birds are white with a shaggy black crest and a long, drooping orange bill.

Two drones were flown illegally over the terns’ nesting area at the reserve in May, with one crashing into the grounds. This caused the birds to abandon their eggs and soon many of them appeared on two temporarily parked barges in Long Beach Harbor, 25 miles south of Los Angeles.

Although the barges were set to depart on a trip, they had to stay in place because of the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, reported The Los Angeles Times. As baby terns were born, the barges became a liability.

“The barges of course were not designed for this purpose and the key problem is that the birds are exceptionally densely populated on the barges and when chicks that are not able to fly yet fall off, they will drown because there is no way for them to get back up the 3-5 feet to the barge again,” JD Bergeron, chief executive officer of International Bird Rescue, tells Treehugger. 

“At least 3,000 chicks hatched on the barges and in their natural development began walking around and flexing their wing muscles. If they get too close to the edge, they plummet into the water where they swim until they are exhausted and will drown unless rescued.”

The group took more than 500 chicks into its wildlife center for care before a temporary solution was found.

“The team realized that the primary concern was to give the chicks a place to get out of the water to warm up. They also needed to be able to get back on the barge,” Bergeron says.

rescuers return elegant terns to barge
Julie Skoglund, left, of International Bird Rescue, and Jamie Sherman of Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) return rescued elegant terns to barges.

International Bird Rescue

Rescuers from several organizations started patrolling around the barges to gather up any birds that needed help.

They also deployed some floating temporary platforms called haulouts that they attached to the barges that were low enough that small birds could climb out of the water safely and then be fed by the adults.

“This proved so successful on the first few days that we had a new challenge of overcrowding on the haulout platforms as well, and we needed to source materials to build more,” Bergeron says. “Fun fact: We used mostly recycled products to make the haulouts and the original one used empty bottles for flotation.”

As the rescued birds recovered, they were returned to the barges.

Rescues and Reunions

stripe on elegant tern
The birds are marked so rescuers can follow their progress.

International Bird Rescue

Before they are released, each bird is painted with a red marking on its head and chest that wears off in about a month. In addition, a small red or orange band is attached to one leg.

These tools allow rescuers to observe the birds from a distance. Rescuers have watched painted chicks interacting normally with adults after they’ve been returned to the barges.

“Their parents will always be a better choice to raise them than for humans to do so,” Bergeron says. “Also, our facility was at its limit with over 500 chicks in care, each one needing to be hand fed 2-4 times per day. We needed to double our staff, increase our volunteer base, and to order lots more fish to feed all these hungry chicks.”

With the deployment of the haulouts and the rescue of the struggling chicks, there are lots of happy calls as adult terns are reunited with their young.

“We have seen far fewer birds in the water, and far fewer carcasses than early on. Fortunately, many of the chicks are now fledging as well, that is learning to fly for the first time,” Bergeron says. “So the situation changes rapidly, but we are still seeing all of the haulouts being used extensively by both flighted and not-yet-flighted birds.”

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  1. JD Bergeron, chief executive officer of International Bird Rescue