Puffins, guillemots and cormorants roam steep slopes and flat land with sparse vegetation, surrounded by dark blue water teeming with seals and sea lions. One morning, Pete Warzybok, a biologist who helps monitor wildlife in the Farallons, takes me to a camouflaged wooden shelter overlooking a huge colony of common guillemots. Twenty thousand black and white birds cover a sloping headland, surrounded by cliffs.
Guillemots, with their sharp beaks, stand shoulder to shoulder like penguins, hatching an egg or tending to a tiny chick in an area of no more than 150 cm2. The entire colony is occupied in the greatest lull. A few screams go through him now and then. The seagulls are constantly flying overhead, looking for a snack. Sometimes a guillemot that lands awkwardly or trips during flight will fight with a neighbor.
But the fights stop as quickly as they start, the birds once again devoting themselves to their broods as if nothing had happened. “A guillemot does what a guillemot should do,” notes Pete Warzybok. Not the smartest of birds. And what an ordinary guillemot does is dedication. Even if there are known cases of divorce, couples are solid and can last more than thirty years, returning every year to the same tiny territory and raising a single offspring.
Parents share brooding duties. While one remains in the colony, the other roams the ocean and dives in search of anchovies, young redfish or any other food. When a parent returns from a long supply trip, the one left behind, increasingly hungry and covered in droppings, he is still reluctant to abandon his egg.
“If they don’t have an egg, Warzybok assures them, they incubate a stone or a piece of wood. They put a fish in an unhatched egg, to try to feed it. They never give up. They can sit on a dead egg for 75 or 80 days. »
At just three weeks old, the juvenile enters the water, while it is still too young to fly or dive. The father accompanies her and stays by her side for several months. He feeds him and teaches him to fish while his mother goes away, alone, to recover.
Parental dedication and the equal division of labor pay off. The Farallon Murre has a very high reproductive success rate (generally over 70%) and is one of the most common breeding seabirds in North America.
However, the colony that Warzybok showed me, despite being huge, contains less than 5% of the archipelago’s guillemots. This healthy population represents the temporary happy ending of a long and sad story. Two centuries ago, 3 million guillemots nested in the Farallon Islands.
In 1849, the gold rush turned San Francisco into a thriving city. The archipelago became a tempting hunting ground for a town without farms. In 1851, the Farallone Egg Company collected half a million eggs a year, which they sold to bakeries and restaurants.
His servants arrived by boat in the spring, collected the newly hatched eggs, and crushed all the others. In half a century, at least 14 million guillemot eggs were collected from the Farallons. Faithful to their breeding grounds, the birds kept coming back.
In 1910, there were less than 20,000 common guillemots on the main island. After the egg hunt ended, they were again victims of cats and dogs introduced by the island’s lighthouse keepers. Gases from freighters entering San Francisco Bay also killed many.