Escape to Alcatraz: A Seabird's Eden

Seagull flying over Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, where seabird nesting season is in full swing. (Tatiana Morozova/iStock)

Once a symbol of captivity, Alcatraz Island is now a sanctuary for free-flying seabirds.

More than 50 years ago, Alcatraz was a high-security prison housing America’s most infamous criminals (e.g., Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud). The surrounding icy-cold water and forceful currents made inmate escape nearly impossible (with one ingenious exception). Today, these same characteristics make the island a refuge for seabirds.

An Island Named for Birds  

The island belonged originally to the birds. Spanish explorers in 1775 named this rock outcropping after its most lively feature, calling it Alcatraces, or “strange birds.”

At one time, the Snowy Egret was hunted to near extinction because its long, graceful feathers were coveted ornaments for ladies' hats. The Audubon Society (1886) was formed in response, allowing these birds, and many others, to make a heroic comeback. (Pauline Yeckley/National Park Service)

But these graceful and unusual creatures left the island once it became a fortress in the 1850s. Soldiers used dynamite to transform this jagged chunk of bedrock into a base fit for battle. A ring of rubble skirting the island’s perimeter is a reminder of it’s military legacy.

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In 1933, the U.S. Justice Department  needed a location to house the inmates that were too difficult and dangerous to be contained elsewhere, which resulted in the transition of Alcatraz from a military base to a federal prison in in 1934.

Where Nature and Culture Interact

Decommissioned as a penitentiary in 1963, the birds have since re-claimed their namesake. But it wasn't immediate. Seabirds are very sensitive to ecological disturbance, so  it took almost 10 years after the prison was shut down for the seabirds to start coming back. Today, the rubble refuse from the dynamiting of the island has resulted in tide pools that support the birds and other wildlife.

Since the 1990s, scientists have been tracking the bird populations closely, inspecting each nest and counting the number of adults, chicks and eggs.

Alcatraz is now a National Historic Landmark, and its main draw is the prison, where visitors can do an audio tour, hearing guards and inmates talk about life on The Rock. Visitors don't often know about the wildlife on the island.

"I was attracted to this conflict between cultural resources and natural resources and having them work together," says Alcatraz biologist, Tori Seher. "The prison is obviously the main attractant, but its a nice surprise that they see when they get out here that there's natural resources as well."

Compared to the almost 1,600 prisoners Alcatraz housed over its 30-year tenure as a penitentiary, the island is now home to ~ 5,000 birds in a year.
Compared to the almost 1,600 prisoners Alcatraz housed over its 30-year tenure, the island is now home to roughly 5,000 birds in a year. (iStock)

Every spring, seabirds flock to Alcatraz to breed and raise their young—a process that the public cannot usually witness from only 10 feet away.

“Seabirds usually nest on these desolate islands that don't see a lot of people or disturbances," says Seher, "so it’s very unique to be able to come out here and see these nesting seabirds up close. I don't know of any other area where you could do that.”

Alcatraz sees roughly 5,000 visitors a day, but because of well-implemented park management, there's very little conflict between the sightseers and the birds. The unexpected, but very real conflict, is between the birds and the use of recreational drones. Because they are operated by remote control, Seher says it's difficult to trace the drone back to the person flying it. Hovering close to the island, she says, their buzzing scares away the sensitive seabirds, many of which do not return. She says drones are one of the reasons bird populations are dropping slightly right now.

Seher urges visitors to really explore the island and not to stop at the audio tour.

"My favorite place is the Snowy Egret colony," she says. On the west side road. "Not too many people go down that road, but you get great views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city.”

Nesting season is in full swing for the seabirds on Alcatraz Island. Each year, nine different species nest and hatch chicks on the island between Spring and early Fall. From black-crowned night herons to oyster catchers, visitors can see the birds feeding and learning to walk. Here, two snowy egrets chicks huddle next to an egret egg yet to hatch. (National Park Service)

Accidental Edens

A territory abandoned by humans and vigorously reclaimed by nature, Alcatraz is akin to an accidental Eden.

Other examples include the site of Chernobyl in the Ukraine or the DMZ between North and South Korea. Both areas burst with biodiversity on land where humans fear to tread.

Scientists are now calling on the Obama Adminstration to turn Guantánamo Bay into an state-of-the-art ecological research station. They propose that, similar to Alcatraz Island, Guantánamo Bay could transition from a cage for humans to a haven for the recovery of the area's unique species and a center for climate change studies.

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A popular destination, tickets to Alcatraz Island sell out fast, and are likely gone for this July 4th weekend. Check here for a list of other places to visit within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

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