On the vast expanse of Tampa Bay’s Gulf Coast, sea breezes whip the sand as it’s baked in the intense Florida sun. Recognized as one of the most popular and visited areas in Florida, this stretch of Florida coastline hosts a wide range of activities for any type of beach lover. However, it’s not just humans who come to enjoy the sun and sand.
It may sound quaint, beach chairs and kites all around and native wildlife cohabiting on the beach with humankind, but that’s far from the truth. Environmental studies professor Beth Forys and Eckerd College students Sarah Beres, Abigail McKay and Olivia Spicer recently published a paper revealing a little-known fact about the behavior of black seabirds. Increased external stress causes the adults in these nesting colonies to commit infanticide on their chicks.
Black skimmers (Rhynchops niger), are threatened in the state of Florida. Named after their unique beak shape, these birds are known to frequent Florida shorelines and hunt prey by skimming the top of the water and catching any prey that strikes their beak.
Infanticide, or the killing of offspring, is a common occurrence in the animal kingdom. Animals kill their young for a plethora of reasons ranging from competition from other mating pairs to lack of available food sources.
“The primary objective of our study was to determine the rate of infanticide in the three colonies of black skimmers in the Tampa Bay area,” said manager Olivia Spicer. “We found that more than a third of attempted infanticide occurred after some disturbance.”
Spicer said disturbances such as passing humans cause the birds to fly away or fly away. According to Spicer, this flush would scare any chicks in the nesting area, causing them to run frantically. Once the adults return to the ground, any displaced chicks are quickly grabbed and killed by the adults, believing that these chicks are not their own. In situations of intense disturbance, adults will go so far as to kill their own young in stress-induced panic, the team’s research suggests.
“We basically concluded that the very high stress from tourists along with the introduction of a coyote population were likely to blame for the high rates of infanticide,” said senior Sarah Beres.
Yet, in the face of these results, it is easy to forget the sinister nature of what these student researchers are witnessing with increasing frequency.
“It was the first time we had seen a lot of chicks at the same time… We were a little impressed looking at these cute baby birds,” Beres spoke of his first sighting of black skimmer infanticide. “You’re kind of confused and then in shock at what’s going on and then you’re like oh my god, like he’s trying to kill his own chick right now, [it’s] a little awful. But after that immediate reaction, you want to know why it’s happening.
Other disturbances observed by the researchers include increased nocturnal activity by coyotes, which attack the nests of skimmers, as well as more intentional interactions caused by visitors on beaches. According to the team, these ranged from dumping trash in the nesting area and children chasing the birds away from their offspring, to more intense incidents like an umbrella being thrown into the area and fireworks being lit in and around the area. around the bounded nesting view.
“It was really frustrating to see that [human-caused disturbances] and see the level of entitlement people felt… this small area compared to the whole beach being overrun with birds,” Beres said. “If you look at it from their perspective, the whole beach has been taken over by people.”
The St. Petersburg/Clearwater region attracting around 6.5 million tourists each year, according to visitclearwater.comand Pinellas County being the most populous county in the state of Florida, according to towncharts.comBlack Skimmer nesting colonies will inevitably face a lot of human contact, increasing the likelihood of negative disturbance.
According to the researchers, negative interactions with bathers were memorable, but few. However, there are glimmers of positivity in the constructive and educational interactions Eckerd students have had with curious visitors.
“There were these little girls who were super into birds,” Spicer said. “They arrived…I let her use my binoculars and her face lit up. It was pretty cool to see them come out of their shell… [and be] so interested in what interested me.
Both Beres and Spicer spoke of numerous instances of beach visitors bringing binoculars and watching nesting birds intently, eager to learn more about them from researchers stationed at the nesting site. The problem of harmful interactions with humans stems from the fact that a few individuals ruin it for birds and humans.
The two students are interested in the improvements that could be made to the management of these colonies. The two Eckerd students said that alongside increasing physical protection like cameras and fencing, education and respect for the natural environment is crucial.
For Spicer and Beres, simple education on the subject is not enough to solidify the survival of these fragile colonies of birds.
“It’s cliché, but just be respectful to those around you, and it’s not exclusive to people,” Spicer said. “I think people should be aware of their surroundings and think that if you live in Florida, you should know Florida wildlife.”