It was more than a year after I first realized that Piping Plover and Peregrine Falcon were in the top five coolest things about the Jersey Shore when it hit me like a Peregrine diving at 240 MPH: one day I might see them eating each other. That would be awful, but would also be one heck of a picture.
I immediately fired off an email to the two smartest people I know on the subject of PIPL and PEFA; “Lord of The Flyway” Todd Pover, the Beach Nesting Bird Director for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and “The Great Mother Of All Cool Things In New Jersey You Can’t Shoot With A Gun”, New Jersey’s legendary biologist Kathy Clark:
Dear Todd & Kathy,
What happens when Kathy’s birds eat all of Todd’s birds?
Respectfully, Readings From The Northside
I got a friendly and lighthearted response assuring me that it was not too much of a problem. The beach nesting folks and the raptor folks all work together they said, and, in reality, Peregrine Falcon are not a major problem for itty bitty PIPL. PEFA like larger, meatier meals, and more importantly, PEFA tend to take prey relative to abundance. Since there are so few Piping Plover left, there is less of a chance a Peregrine will find one to eat. And given the choice between trying to catch a solitary Piping Plover, or plow into a huge flock of Dunlin, a Peregrine will usually play the odds and hit the flock, hoping to catch the laziest one. Peregrine Falcon generally hunt “on the wing”, punching flying birds out of the air. Piping Plover are beach bums. They generally prefer strolling around the beach, just like us.
But Todd and Kathy’s response set off a red hot alarm for me, and I’ve been panicked ever since. That’s because the rest of us see clearly what they might be missing, perhaps because they are just too humble: what I see is that they are both really, really, really good at their jobs of restoring the Piping Plover and the Peregrine Falcon, respectively. Since learning about the great work they both do, I’ve always been 100% convinced that in a few decades the beach will be so crawling with their two pet species that they will both be considered pests. We’ll be shooing away Piping Plover chicks crawling all over our beach towels, and bringing huge umbrellas to the beach not to protect us from the sun, but to protect us from the Peregrine Falcons that are so thick they block out the sun.
Put simply, my confidence is so high in our beach nesting bird and raptor recovery teams in New Jersey, Kathy & Todd’s response only served to convince me the Piping Plover would be the Peregrine Falcon’s main food source in a decade or two. That’s probably a good problem to have, but better start thinking it through now.
I can’t remember the first time I heard a beach nesting bird scientist refer to a Peregrine Falcon as “awful” because I’ve heard it so many times since. But it is always shocking. It is one thing for Readings From The Northside to go around disparaging “regular birds.” Everyone knows they are totally boring. But for a scientist with all of their fine-tuned powers of observation not to recognize just how adorable, how hilarious, and how magnificent a Peregrine is, is shameful in the extreme. That’s like calling puppy breath awful. Shame.
But as the population of Piping Plover increases, and those devoted to helping them learn more, there is some growing evidence that Peregrine Falcon aren’t necessarily helping. While we have tried to hard to make deals with the PEFA and get them to agree to eat only boring, regular birds, there is evidence that they are not upholding their end of the bargain and are eating some of our adorable shorebirds. Including Piping Plover. Naughty.
Indeed, this spring there was a Reading I’ve Been Dying Here My Whole Life which expressed a growing concern. While trying not to be too alarmist, the post was inspired while watching an especially smart Peregrine Falcon at Holgate who appeared to have recognized the noisy, flashy, and easy meal that is the Piping Plover mating ritual. While I never saw her actually eat an itty-bitty, she appeared to be learning where they were forming their little nests, and showing up for a front row seat each morning (along with me!) Good golly. There could be a real bloodbath at a hot spot like Holgate if a savvy Peregrine keyed in on all the itty-bitty sitting ducklets. It is one thing to lose eggs and chicks. But if Falcons were to start picking off grown up PIPL systematically, the great rug of the Recovery could be pulled right out from under us. Especially at a place like Holgate which hosts almost one quarter of the State’s summer PIPL population and also happens to be a favorite hangout of naughty, juvenile PEFA.
A growing amount of research and observation suggests this does happen. And ironically, it just might be the wire-cage nest exclosures erected to protect Piping Plover nests from predators like fox and raccoons that just might be tipping off the Peregrine Falcon! Imagine that. The nest exclosure is such a brilliant, dead simple device that has proven so effective in protecting eggs from things that eat them. If it somehow transforms from a godsend into a nightmare, I suppose we can only laugh and shake our heads. Life is hard and tricky. No way around it. I doubt anyone gets into a career working with endangered animals that live along the shore because they are looking for easy work anyway.
If it turns out that adorable Peregrine Falcon become a significant problem for PIPL, it will be easy to whine that Peregrine shouldn’t even be on the beach on the first place. Remember, after we killed them all accidentally with DDT, we reintroduced them into the wild using captive-bred falconer’s birds. Since it was too annoying to reintroduce them on cliffs and up mountains where they belong, we put them on man-made towers along the coast. It was a great call. It worked. And generations of scientists have gotten to spend the nesting season at the beach instead of in the mountains ever since. That’s a major victory for science if you ask me.
Whether they should have been introduced here or not is neither here nor there. That was long time ago. We probably should not have invented the automobile or taxes either. But we did. And given the Peregrine’s penchant for our bridges, water towers, and birds, there is a good chance they would be here among us down the shore anyway. Because the beach is the best, and Peregrine aren’t stupid. And so we will just have to deal with it.
The good news is that if Peregrine Falcon nom noming Piping Plover becomes a really serious issue in the future, scores of smart people are sure to invest themselves in finding good solutions. That’s because Peregrine Falcon and Piping Plover are probably the two most adorable, most hilarious, and most charismatic creatures on the planet. Heck, even I’d be willing to quit my job, go back to school, and devote my life to the problem just for the chance to play with both of them at the same time. And that’s what the PIPL/PEFA Summit is all about. Getting baby PEFA into the hands of PIPL people, and getting PIPL chicks into the hands of PEFA scientists.
While the turnout was small for the First Annual PIPL/PEFA Summit, it was a raging success. Held atop the historic Peregrine Tower at the Forsythe Refuge, Kathy Clark successfully got an adorable little PEFA baby into the hands of Piping Plover scientist Michelle Stantial, who proceeded to have her heart melted.
In the end, the problem of PEFA eating PIPL is a problem every beach bum knows well. It is a problem of sharing the beach. For just like us, our endangered species all the love the beach in different ways, have radically different uses for it, and those different uses often come into direct conflict with each other. Surfers want to take sweet lefts right into the fluke filled hole where surfcasters are casting, joggers want to plow right through the line of shorebirds a photographer is taking pictures of, and PEFA want to nom nom Piping Plover while they are trying to nest.
Sharing the beach can be an inconvenience, but it really is the only option. Take it from the beach bums. Wishing others didn’t use the beach differently than we do doesn’t accomplish anything, but learning more about the other side by reaching across the aisle always makes things better by fostering understanding, empathy, and strategies for working together successfully.
The reality is that scientists are humans like the rest of us. They have their preferences and their biases. They are busy and don’t always like having more problems to deal with, also like the rest of us. PEFA eating PIPL would be a major inconvenience for both groups. Beach Nesting Bird groups don’t need more predators eating their stuff, and PEFA folks surely don’t want to deal with trying to steer their growing populations off the beaches that have been so instrumental in their recovery.
But the heart of the path forward is pretty simple. It’s rooted in the realization the both creatures are truly adorable and have both been beat down real bad by human carelessness. It is easy to love them both, and to be similarly moved to action by their underdog stories.
There is a lot riding on issues like PEFA eating PIPL on the beach for the field of Wildlife Management. There is a hostile public just chomping at the bit to latch onto an example where Wildlife Management folks created a new set of problems through their activities. For better or worse, we love that stuff in America. We delight in the perceived failures of others’ greatest and most sincere efforts, especially when it give us the opportunity to say “You fools! You thought you were so smart!”
Thankfully, the potential problem of PEFA eating PIPL is a sign of progress, not failure. It is a new challenge and a cruel joke on all the hard working people who have been toiling thanklessly for years to save both us and our wild friends from ourselves.
Hopefully this was just the first of many future PIPL/PEFA Summits, coast wide. If you work with either species you are officially encouraged to organize your own PIPL/PEFA summit for next season. Because the Recovery is here. For both species. And nothing will inspire solutions like reaching across the aisle and snuggling each others babies.
Now, if only we could figure out how to get Kathy Clark to a PIPL banding next season….