Biologists Reclaim Island Infested with Birds

Ring-billed gulls and cormorants once controlled Young Island in Lake Champlain

Biologists with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife continue working to rescue a state-owned island from the brink of destruction by birds.

"It's quiet compared to the way it used to be here," said biologist John Gobeille as he stepped from a boat onto Young Island in Lake Champlain. "You used to need earplugs."

Today, Young Island is green and grassy. Not too long ago, the spot was barren and rocky because its surfaces were denuded. The island was infested with shrieking ring-billed gulls and cormorants, whose toxic guano killed vegetation.

"It's coming back," Gobeille said, observing plant life on the island.

Gobeille was applying cooking oil to the gulls' eggs, so they wouldn't hatch. He said over the past fifteen or so years, the approach helped cut the population of ring-billed gulls to less than a tenth of the 15,000 that once dominated Young Island. They would bully other birds, keeping species away, Gobeille explained.

"The species diversity here had declined to only, like, two [bird] species," Gobeille told necn, recalling the situation on the island in the 1990s.

For cormorants, the oil work, combined with shooting the birds in a prescribed process more than ten years ago, dramatically minimized numbers on Young Island, fish and wildlife officials said. However, regular visitors to the lake will see cormorants at many other locations on and around the water.

Now, with the gull numbers down on Young Island, Mark Scott, the wildlife director of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said birds including the black duck and the common tern have been able to nest on the island again. The common tern, despite its name, is listed as a state-endangered species in Vermont.

"I'm smiling today," Scott said on a recent visit to the island. "I look at this island and go, 'Wow, this is really neat what's happened here.'"

Scott and Gobeille noted the department has planted trees and ground-covering plants to replace what the invaders killed. Not only would the birds' acidic waste prevent plants from growing, but the birds would also defoliate trees and shrubs to build nests, Gobeille explained, turning the island into something resembling the surface of the moon.

Despite the encouraging turnaround in Young Island's appearance, the department said it knows there is a lot more habitat restoration work that needs to be done on Lake Champlain. The department said it is currently watching five other state-owned islands, one private island through financial backing of the landowner, and another private island where the state deters birds that may interfere with nesting of the common tern.

Thousands of cormorants are still damaging other land, boaters and fishermen have reported in recent years. And many sportsmen believe the cormorants are robbing the lake of fish by gobbling up perch and smelt.

Fishermen have long complained about the cormorants, insisting more needs to be done to control the large, black birds' numbers.

Funding a cormorant fix on the lake Vermont shares with New York and Quebec has been a long-running problem, Scott acknowledged.

"The challenge comes down to money; you know, economics," Scott told necn. "People say, 'Well, why don't you just let people go out and hunt [cormorants] on their own? Well, they're not classified as a game species under federal law."

Even with more challenges ahead, the dramatic transformation of Young Island has left the department optimistic that habitat management can work.

Scott said the department does its gull and cormorant work with just over $40,000 in state funding, but to be even more effective, he said his team would need $100,000 in additional monies from federal grants, state appropriations, non-profit support, or other sources.

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