Thursday, November 18, 2010

When Seagulls Attack

It was one of those perfect days. The sun was shining and there was not a cloud in the sky. We were driving from Spokane, Washington to Seattle, and we decided to pull over at a rest area to have lunch. While Jason went inside to refill our water bottles, I took out our Coleman picnic basket and headed toward a picnic table. It was a warm, spring day and it was nice to get out of the car and enjoy some fresh air. Even though I could hear the highway in the distance, we had the rest area to ourselves and it was pretty peaceful. Then I put the picnic basket down on the table and in an instant I was surrounded. There were dozens of seagulls, some on the ground, others on the table, a few in the air. Almost all were squawking.

Maybe I’ve seen Hitchcock’s The Birds a few too many times and maybe I’ve had more than my share of being at the wrong place at the wrong time when a bird has had “to go,” but birds are not my favorite animal. Especially when there are so many squawking all around me. Needless to say, I grabbed the picnic basket and ran to the car. When Jason got back I told him to drive and to drive fast.

Once I got some color back in my face and we had some lunch, I started thinking about how wildlife learns to cohabitate with humans, specifically outdoor recreationists. Wildlife in general tends to be wary of humans and cautious about the unknown, but through countless encounters with humans there are three generally accepted learned responses that wildlife have to outdoor recreationists: habituation, attraction, and avoidance.

Habituation is a form of learning in which an animal gets accustomed to frequent repetition or prolonged exposure without a positive or negative reward. In other words, they get used to our presence in their habitat. Attraction occurs as a result of a reward or reinforcement and results in wildlife seeking out the presence of humans in order to benefit from food, shelter, and/or security. Attraction of wildlife to humans can result in potentially dangerous situations. Avoidance occurs as a result of pain or punishment and leads to an aversion of humans by wildlife. Avoidance can sometimes be beneficial for humans and wildlife but can also have costs such as loss of important areas of habitat and lost opportunities for foraging.

Aside from the close call with the seagulls in Washington, Jason and I have had many other encounters with animals that clearly sought out humans for a free meal: the marmots in Grand Teton National Park, the grizzly bear in Yellowstone, the squirrels and chipmunks in Grand Canyon, the raccoons in North Carolina, and most recently the rats in Dry Tortugas National Park to name a few. In every single national park and state park, we see numerous signs imploring people to please not feed the wildlife. Yet, we also see countless numbers of visitors intentionally (handing chipmunks a granola bar) and accidently (dropping crumbs by a picnic table) feeding animals. When animals begin to lose their fear of humans and also associate humans with food they are said to be food-conditioned. Some animals can become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain human food. This becomes a dangerous situation for recreationists and often does not end well for the animals. There are countless stories of bears that have had to be euthanized because land management officials feared for the public’s safety as a result of the bear becoming habituated, food-conditioned, and subsequently aggressive.

To prevent food-conditioning of all wildlife, please be careful with food while in the outdoors whether in your backyard or the backcountry. Prevent animals from obtaining human food and garbage by depositing all garbage in wildlife-resistant trash containers and by keeping all food and garbage inside a closed, hard-sided vehicle or wildlife-resistant container. Also, be aware of micro-garbage like crumbs. A few crumbs can be a meal for small animals, so be careful to not drop any crumbs and check the area for any micro-garbage before you leave. Please remember to practice the other aspects of the Respect Wildlife principle as well.

Respect Wildlife:

• Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them.
• Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
• Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.
• Control pets at all times, or leave them at home.
• Avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Agata and Jason Ketterick

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