New Brunswick News

New Brunswick, Canada Wednesday July 1,1998

Luring gannets back to an island

By KATE JAIMET - Telegraph Journal

MONCTON - A grey, barren rock rises above the choppy waves of the Bay of Fundy, 20 kilometres off the Nova Scotia shore. Whipped by the wind and lashed by the sea, the rock is uninhabited - except by a flock of foam and fibreglass birds.

The fake birds are gannets: pelican-like seabirds with white bodies, creamy yellow heads and black-tipped wings. Over 100 years ago, real gannets could be seen here, swooping over the Bay of Fundy and plunging into the waves for a catch of herring. They built nests of seaweed on this barren island called, appropriately enough, Gannet Rock.

Those birds have long since disappeared. But now, a local pharmacist is trying to lure the gannets back to Gannet Rock. Four years ago, Ted D'Eon of Pubnico, N.S., took his motor boat out on the rough waters of the bay and headed to the rock for the first time. In the bottom of the boat were six model gannets, carved of cedar by himself and two friends. It was the beginning of his project to re-establish a gannet colony on the rock by enticing them with life-like decoys.

"Gannet Rock is still on the migratory flight path of the gannets, especially in the spring. There's still thousands and thousands that fly right by Gannet Rock," Mr. D'Eon says.

"Their population is increasing and it may just be a matter of time before they're colonizing in the Bay of Fundy."

According to historical records, Gannet Rock was once so popular that the nesting birds covered it from end to end.

"Henry Baker, born on Cape Forchu in 1850, says when he went fishing as a boy with his father between 1860 and 1870, gannets were very common off shore and Gannet Rock was white with them," wrote naturalist Robie Tufts in his book, Birds of Nova Scotia.

"He says they disappeared soon after the erection of lobster fishermen's shacks on Green Island." The lobster fishermen would travel to the rock, about seven kilometres away from Green Island, to collect the gannet's eggs for food. As the eggs disappeared, the colony died out - and by the end of the 19th century, Gannet Rock was devoid of bird life.

For the next 70 years, the numbers of gannets breeding off Canada's East Coast continued to shrink - from hundreds of thousands to mere tens of thousands. Hunting for food and feathers took its toll. And the use of DDT, a toxic pesticide that washed into the ocean, poisoning the fish and the birds that fed on them, caused the number of gannets to plummet further.

Although the gannets disappeared from the Bay of Fundy and the New England Coast, the birds continued to nest on isolated islands in the mouth of the Saint Lawrence and the coast of Newfoundland. And now, says Canadian Wildlife Service biologist Tony Lock, the birds are making a comeback.

The comeback is due in part to restrictions on hunting and the banning of DDT. But, Dr. Lock says, the birds may also be profiting from something that most Maritimers see as a curse, not a blessing: the decline of the cod stocks.

"We've changed the whole eco-system of the oceans. We've removed the cod, the haddock and things like that and we've liberated huge stocks of smaller fish," Dr. Lock explains.

"The birds may benefit from this. We think one of the reasons for the increase in cormorants, for example, could be the increasing availability of food." As the number of gannets increases, the young gannets may be looking for a new place to build their nests and lay their eggs. And that's where Mr. D'Eon's project on Gannet Rock comes in.

Gannets are conservative, explains Dr. Lock. They don't like nesting on a bare, empty rock with no neighbours in sight. But by setting up decoys, Mr. D'Eon might be able to trick the gannets into thinking that there is already a colony on gannet rock.

"You look at a gannet colony and you see these little, regularly spaced white dots. A gannet sees that and he thinks: home. And it will tend to be attracted to that," Dr. Lock says. "I don't think birds are hugely endowed intellectually. They can be fooled quite easily."

At the American Audubon Society, biologist Stephen Kress is taking this decoy technique one step further. Dr. Kress is the director of the seabird restoration program, and has worked to restore birds like puffins, terns, razorbills and murres to the islands off the coast of Maine.

Right now, he's trying to establish a gannet colony on an island off the coast of Quebec called Ile aux Perroquets. But instead of just using decoys, Dr. Kress has added another dimension.

First, he travelled to a gannet colony at Bonaventure Island to cut the ultimate nature CD: an unending track of raucous bird calls. Then, he set up a sound system among the plastic decoys on Ile aux Perroquets.

"The decoys attract the birds from a distance, and once they land we want them to feel like they're in a real colony," Dr. Kress says. But do the birds get along with their plastic neighbours? "They will pick at them a bit," Dr. Kress admits. "But eventually they settle down and feel comfortable among their own kind." Dr. Kress says projects like his and Mr. D'Eon's are important, because the more colonies there are, the greater chance the species has of surviving and flourishing in the long term.

"The fewer colonies, the more vulnerable the birds are to catastrophes such as oil spills, predators and pollution," he says. "The birds are better off nesting on many islands.' Global climate change may also change the birds habitat," Dr. Kress continues. A major weather change could wipe out a nesting ground; so the more colonies there are, the greater chance the species has of surviving.

"The wider the range, the more likely the birds will do well under climate change," he says. "We see it as a sort of pro-active conservation." Meanwhile, on Gannet Rock, the gannet colony has grown in the past four years - but only in the number of decoys. Starting from six carved birds in 1994, Mr. D'Eon now has 46 foam and fibreglass decoys set up in the formation of a colony. He's recruited some friends and relatives to help make the decoys and glue them on the island every spring. He'd like to add a sound system to his colony as well, but he's not sure he can handle the expense.

No live birds have come to nest on Gannet Rock yet, but Mr. D'Eon isn't giving up. He knows you can't rush Mother Nature. And there have been encouraging signs: In the past few years, he's seen young gannets hanging out on the Bay of Fundy all summer, perhaps checking out the rock as a possible nesting site.

"In the early spring what we see are just about all adult gannets [migrating past]. They will keep nesting where they've always nested. We don't expect to get any of those nesting on the rock," Mr. D'Eon explains.

"But we've also been seeing more and more immature gannets every year in the summer than we used to. They take about three or four years before nesting for the first time. Our hope is when it becomes their time to nest, they will come to Gannet Rock."

Dr. Lock praises Mr. D'Eon for his initiative, and believes the project has a good chance of success.

"Things are moving in the Bay of Fundy. Since 20 years ago, murres have come back as breeding birds; puffins are beginning to make new colonies on the southern shore of Nova Scotia; gannets are increasing in number; kittiwakes have begun breeding in the Bay of Fundy," the scientist says hopefully. "Perhaps it's returning to the way it used to be."

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