Port of Everett us­ing dead seag­ulls to scare off other birds

The Daily Herald - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Catch­pole Her­ald Writer

MUK­IL­TEO — The images are ghoul­ish: Dead gulls strung up with wire around their legs.

The photos were taken at a Port of Everett cargo ter­mi­nal and posted to so­cial me­dia this week, prompt­ing lo­cal bird­ers to re­spond with out­rage and dis­gust:

”This is sick­en­ing. Those poor birds. And any­one that would do that is se­ri­ously trou­bled.”

“Dis­turbed, dis­gusted and shocked.” And that is the goal. Sort of. The dead gulls were hung up at the port’s Mount Baker Ter­mi­nal to scare off other birds, said Brook Zscheile, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist and district su­per­vi­sor with the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Wildlife Services in Bre­mer­ton.

The Port of Everett con­tracts with USDA Wildlife Services Pro­gram to con­trol dam­age from the birds — com­monly called seag­ulls — at its fa­cil­i­ties. If noth­ing is done, gulls will crowd the port’s piers and wharves, cre­at­ing health and safety prob­lems, and dam­ag­ing prop­erty, Zscheile said.

Bird poop is the main con­cern. Lots of gulls make for lots of bird poop. That might seem like a petty rea­son to string up dead birds, but it puts wa­ter­front work­ers at risk at places like the Mount Baker Ter­mi­nal, where long­shore­men use big machines to load and un­load ship­ping con­tain­ers and other huge cargo, most of it bound for Boe­ing. Slip­ping or be­ing dis­tracted at the wrong time could lead to se­ri­ous in­juries or even be fa­tal.

“Peo­ple can’t work around there when they’re get­ting pooped on,” he said.

De­com­pos­ing bird fe­ces also cor­rodes metal and wiring, caus­ing ex­ten­sive prop­erty dam­age and also po­ten­tially cre­at­ing un­safe work­ing con­di­tions.

USDA work­ers start with softer meth­ods, us­ing fire­works and noise­mak­ers to ir­ri­tate the birds. But an­i­mals adapt.

“If you put up a plas­tic owl, it loses its ef­fect over time,” he said. Be­cause birds re­al­ize that the plas­tic owl isn’t go­ing to eat them, “There is noth­ing re­in­forc­ing that it is a dan­ger.”

Birds will even learn to fly away when they see USDA ve­hi­cles pull up and re­turn when they leave. “That’s when you know your scare tac­tics aren’t work­ing,” he said.

Hang­ing a dead bird drives home the mes­sage to other birds: This is a danger­ous place.

“An ef­figy — dis­play­ing a dead bird — is tech­ni­cally a non-lethal method,” Zscheile said. Of course, it’s lethal for the dead bird, but it saves other birds by driv­ing them away.

Usu­ally the birds that get strung up are first shot at the site with a ri­fle. Some­times work­ers bring car­casses with them. Some­times life-size images of dead birds are printed and dis­played on roofs. The ef­fi­gies — real and printed — can last for a few months, de­pend­ing on weather and other fac­tors. He said he does not know the source of the birds at Mount Baker Ter­mi­nal.

The gulls are killed un­der a fed­eral per­mit and fol­low­ing fed­eral rules pro­tect­ing wildlife, he said. “We’re bi­ol­o­gists. We’re not shoot­ing en­dan­gered species” or reck­lessly hurt­ing an­i­mals.

They also are not dis­played in pub­lic ar­eas. The Mount Baker Ter­mi­nal is along a re­mote stretch of wa­ter­front and be­hind a se­cu­rity fence. The photos posted on­line were taken from the wa­ter.

Clear­ing birds from a site is an on­go­ing process. “Young birds will come. They don’t know they’re not sup­posed to be there,” he said.

The agency has been man­ag­ing gulls at ferry ter­mi­nals and other lo­ca­tions around Puget Sound for more than a decade. The num­ber of sites con­stantly varies, he said.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the pro­gram keeps a low pro­file. Like most bird watch­ers, Michael Brown didn’t know about it. The 59-yearold has been bird­ing since he was a kid on Mercer Is­land.

“When I first saw the photos, I was shocked by it, and couldn’t re­ally un­der­stand how it hap­pened,” he said.

Crowds of gulls can cause prob­lems for peo­ple, he said. To be fair, “we of­ten cre­ate the con­di­tions that at­tract large num­bers of them,” such as wa­ter­fronts crowded with food stands and pic­nick­ers or at land­fills ripe with left­overs.

Sure, they can be a nui­sance, but “I also see a beau­ti­ful bird, es­pe­cially the adults in full breed­ing plumage with bright white heads,” Brown said.

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