Seabirds and the Mexican islands: one and the same

Alfonso 2 (1)

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz

Director Emeritus and Board Director of Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas
MIDORI Prize Winner 2016

All throughout nature, wildlife is shaped—and in turn shape—by their respective environments. These intricate and ever-changing relationships have been tenaciously constructed over millions of years between plants and animal communities and its surrounding environment to perform their vital functions. Such understanding of nature has been recognized by traditional knowledge of cultures all over the world. The great naturalist Alexander von Humboldt formalized this systemic and complex idea, setting the fundamentals that lye at the heart of modern ecology. Eventually, this rich perspective and seminal work inspired Darwin in his quest to understand evolution, and islands were at the core of his observations and discoveries.

Seabirds tell us how these complex ecological interactions build our world. Bound to the oceans, skies and islands, they connect the world’s vastness. Seabirds, oceans, and islands are one and the same.

The magical freedom, artistic joy and aesthetic pleasure that comes with seabirds’ observation are awe-inspiring, and also teach us in ways that can be hard to imagine.
Not surprisingly birdwatching has antique roots. In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, birds were observed to foretell the future. Specialized professionals called Augurs or Auspices (“the ones that observe the birds”) interpreted their behaviour to deliver auspices—good and bad—for the times to come.

Isla Espíritu Santo, Gulf of California, Mexico
Laysan Albatross flying

Nowadays, augury became scientific knowledge, informing us about the world and our future within it. Thus, research into the diversity, population dynamics and natural history of seabirds highlights critical issues that transcend political boundaries and affect humanity as a whole: global warming, sea level rise, complete loss of low-lying reef islands, coastal vulnerability to tsunamis, chemical marine pollution, plastic pollution of the oceans, overfishing, and insular habitat destruction. To the health of our oceans and islands, seabirds are like the “canary in the coal mine” or the “rose in the vineyard”: they tell us loud and clear about the state of our shared environment.

Mexican islands, particularly those of the Pacific, are seabird habitats of global importance, harbouring one third (108) of the world’s total number of species (359). Seabirds have been feeding, reproducing, resting, and nesting on these islands for millions of years, making Mexico the country with the second-highest number of endemic seabirds after New Zealand.

Unfortunately, modernity and human presence have taken their toll. The most damaging impact—through predation and habitat destruction—has been by invasive species, introduced to the islands purposely or accidentally by sailors. Ship rats, feral cats, goats, and sheep are particularly striking examples. In just a few years, invaders can cause the total extinction of an endemic species, or extirpate—make locally extinct—a native one. This problem affects, without exception, islands all over the world.

Murrelet juvenile in an artificial nest/San Benito Oeste Island, Pacific Ocean, Mexico
Conservation scientists on Guadalupe Island

Over the past 20 years, the Mexican nonprofit organization Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas, A.C. (Group of Island Ecology and Conservation) to fully restore the islands and seabird populations of Mexico, has been implementing a comprehensive, long-term restoration and conservation program, teaming up with authorities and local communities.
An indispensable starting process is to remove the main factor that decimates seabirds and alter the habitat. To this end, 61 populations of invasive mammals have so far been eradicated from 39 islands, which in turn has benefitted 250 seabird breeding colonies.

Children from the Guadalupe Island fishermen community

Often, extirpated birds return by themselves to the now safe and clean island. When they do not, seabirds are gently invited to come back where they belong. The return is facilitated by social attraction techniques: deployment of artificial decoy colonies, for visual attraction; automatic broadcasting of songs, for auditive attraction; and by building artificial nests to make the initial recolonization and breeding less arduous to the parents. Of the 27 extirpated seabird’s populations, 85% are now back. To complement and assure enduring results, vegetation communities and soil are also restored. Finally, each project is wrapped up with a biosecurity protocol aimed at preventing the introduction of invasive species.

Successful restoration involves social aspects as much as it does nature. It has been essential to engage and build bridges with local fishermen communities, provide opportunities for environmental learning, and team up with academic institutions and government agencies. Thanks to these efforts, all the Mexican islands are now protected by federal decrees and are benefitted with conservation actions in the field.

Laysan Albatross colony, Guadalupe Island

Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas continues to research and monitor seabird populations on priority islands located on the country’s diverse marine regions: Pacific Ocean near the peninsula of Baja California, Guadalupe Island, Gulf of California, the remote Revillagigedo Archipelago, and Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

I would like to conclude with a hopeful epilogue harking back to the global links seabirds embody. It is a story that strengthens the idea of “The Islands Sisterhood” across the Pacific Ocean: Some months ago, a young Laysan albatross born in 2018 on El Zapato (“The Shoe”), an islet near Guadalupe Island, Mexico, appeared on the coast of Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. Thanks to its distinctive orange ring, the bird was identified by scientists of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology. It was the first time that happened. Over 9,000 km away from its birthplace, and despite the separation created by COVID-19, the epic flight of this albatross provides grounds for optimism, and unites us—in this case particularly Japan and Mexico—in our shared commitment and common responsibility.

All photos credits: GECI / J.A. Soriano