Save the Birds: Study Adds to Calls to Ban Dogs from Beaches During Shorebird Nesting Season

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Guardian reproduced a recent University of Valencia study that confirms another threat to nesting birds:

There is only one thing more terrifying for a nesting bird than a person walking nearby: when that two-legged beast is joined by a four-legged companion.

A study of how ground-nesting birds are disturbed on beaches in Spain has revealed how they are almost always scared from their nests by passing off-lead dogs, but seem unperturbed by motorbikes, helicopters and low-flying planes.

Walkers accompanied by dogs flushed Kentish plovers from the foreshore nests 80% of the time when walking on paths over the beach, compared with just 12.9% of the time when without a dog.

When walkers with dogs did not stick to paths but roamed the dunes, they scared the plovers from their nests 93.8% of the time. The study by Dr Miguel Ángel Gómez-Serrano of the University of Valencia found none of the 714 nest disturbance events observed on four beaches in Castellón and Valencia involved dogs on leads.

Ban Dogs from Beaches During Shorebird Breeding Season

There seems to be an easy solution to the problem. Ban dogs from beaches during the nesting season for shorebirds, some of which are critically endangered throughout the planet. Other forms of human activity don’t seem to have the same flushing effect.

Regular readers know I am a keen bird lover, so will not be surprised by my recommendation. Yet although I don’t presently own a dog, I don’t think this is more than a minimal imposition. I’m not calling for a ban on all action around nesting sites: people would still be able to enjoy their beach walks, provided they kept to pathways. Nor am I calling for a complete ban on dogs walking on beaches either, but in nesting season only, and provided they are kept on leashes the rest of the time (although I understand certain doglovers may occasionally succumb to a whim to let their dogs run free).

Doglovers can always take their pets to other natural habitats during nesting season, those many sites where shorebirds don’t nest.

Over to The Guardian again:

“Fewer and fewer beaches have the capacity to host coastal bird breeding populations, so we should be concerned about conserving them,” said Gómez-Serrano, who called for dogs to be banned from more beaches during nesting season.

“Dogs produce a disproportionate impact compared to that of people walking on the beach, so their entry into these areas should be limited at least in the most critical [breeding] season for these species. At this time, birds are incubating their eggs or guarding their chicks, and cannot change beaches to avoid disturbance.”

The Kentish plover is a small, declining shorebird that lays camouflaged eggs on beaches across southern Europe.

And, for those who don’t know this, successful nesting relies particularly on not being disturbed. The Guardian again:

In Britain, similar shorebirds such as ringed plovers, oystercatchers, and little, common and sandwich terns nest on beaches. The ringed plover is on the “red list” of Britain’s most endangered birds. Its population fall of 37% between 1984 and 2007 partly attributed to nest disturbance as beaches become busier.

While cordons are erected on some British beaches in spring to encourage walkers to keep off small areas of sand and shingle where birds nests, the string rarely keeps out dogs.

Nesting birds will abandon their nests if disturbed too often, or their eggs may become too cold or too hot to hatch. Plover eggs have been found to tolerate temperatures between 15C and 42C before the embryo dies, with eggs rapidly overheating in Spain if left in direct sunlight without the bird sitting on them.

For those who might wonder whether a complete ban during nesting season is necessary, when  a simple leash requirement might suffice, the answer is no, it would not. According to the Guardian:

Mark Cocker, a naturalist and author, said: “We’re in denial. We know dogs are genetically wolves and we have 10 million of them in this country. There’s clearly an environmental issue, but conservationists are scared of talking about it because it’s such a strong lobby. It’s about dog-owners showing restraint and understanding they are part of a very large cohort of people and the privilege of owning a dog comes with responsibilities.

“It’s not about excluding dogs from beaches or public spaces but acknowledging that dogs off leashes cause significant problems. Dogscould easily be kept on a lead between the months of March and June when birds nest. For eight months of the year, they wouldn’t be interfering with birds’ reproduction on the beach and there should be no conflict.”

Asked whether keeping dogs on leads during the spring breeding season would help nesting birds, Gómez-Serrano said: “Although the roaming movements of dogs are more reduced when on lead, dogs trigger an anti-predatory instinct in birds not comparable to that of humans.

“In addition, unfortunately dog owners do not usually comply with the regulations about dog walking on leads, so surveillance is necessary so that these regulations are respected. Obviously, there is usually not enough budget for this purpose, and managers prefer not to address this widespread problem in coastal areas.”

And even if this half-measure would work, it is still necessary to enforce the restriction – something that has proven to be a burden elsewhere, and which would of course need to be publicly-funded, at a time, when the COVID1-19 pandemic has decimated fiscal situations worldwide.

California State of Mind

California has been the site of a long-running battledbetween dog lovers and birders. The Orange Country Register reports:

Dog owners and bird lovers have clashed for years over the Santa Ana River mouth area, home to two rare bird species — and the conflict appears likely to continue at the illegal dog beach.

The Coastal Commission on Wednesday approved two measures intended to discourage dogs, their owners and dog walking companies from the stretch of sand. But environmentalists and several commissioners say the proposals are inadequate to protect the threatened snowy plover and endangered least tern in the area.

“I think the benefits will be minimal,” said Garry Brown of Orange County Coastkeeper, one of several groups that would like stricter, more far-reaching measures.

“It’s a step in the right direction … but we’d really like to see more enforcement by the county, the city and the Coastal Commission.”

The channel between the jetties at the river mouth — the coastal boundary between Newport Beach and Huntington Beach — is overseen by the county, whose ordinances ban people and pets from such channels as well as prohibiting dogs on all county beaches. Immediately to the southeast of the channel is a stretch of Newport Beach-controlled sand, where dogs are permitted on leashes before 10 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m.

Alas, the reality is that dog owners regularly flout leash laws,, in part due to lack of enforcement, but also because such beach users fail to see how such restrictions actually protect nesting shorebird. And they may be right. Because the latest study shows that half measures like leash laws don’t dully protect birds – and particularly of they only apply during certain hours of the day, Over again to the Orange Country Register:

However, unleashed dogs regularly romp throughout the day both in the channel and on the Newport Beach side of the river mouth. Even when the dogs don’t chase birds or trample nests, their presence frightens birds and disrupts breeding, biologists say.

The California Coastal Commission thinks better enforcement of such half measures might help save the nesting birds. So it has stopped up enforcement, according to the Orange County Register:

In response to concerns of environmentalists and Coastal Commission staff, the county says that last August it began increasing Sheriff’s Department patrol of the area to about three times a week. Brown and others say there’s little evidence the increased law enforcement presence has been a substantial deterrent.

Additionally, the county proposed posting two new “No Trespassing” signs and two educational signs explaining that the area is a “sensitive wildlife protection area.”

The commission on Wednesday voted 9-1 to approve the new signs as well a requirement that the county provide an annual report documenting the number of visits to the area by sheriff’s deputies and county staff as well as the number of warnings and citations given.

But the latest effort may not be sufficient. A complete ban on dogs, at least during nesting  season, may be necessary here (as it has in fact been applied on other California beaches, as well as elsewhere  in the U.S.) Again, the Orange County Register reports:

Penny Elia of the Sierra Club is among the skeptical environmentalists.

“We have a lot of signs in the area and they are not read by the public,” she said. “I want to see the beach closed and the closure enforced.”

Elia wants to put the sand off limits for several blocks on the Newport Beach side of the river mouth. That would make access to the channel area more difficult and reduce human activity on the environmentally sensitive dunes on that side of the channel.

Brown, meanwhile, would like the city of Newport Beach to work with environmentalists to select some place else in the city for a dog beach.

“There’s not reason it needs to be in the middle of a wildlife habitat,” he said

Bottom Line

The latest research suggests that dogs and nesting  shorebirds don’t mix – wherever they might come together. Policy, whether it be in the EU, post-Brexot UK, or throughout U.S. states. needs to recognize that reality.

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  1. lyman alpha blob

    Thanks for this Jerri-Lynn. If you’ve ever seen a baby plover, it isn’t hard to understand how they’d be disrupted by dogs, even little kicky dogs – they look like a cottonball stuck on a toothpick. One of these days I will send in some pictures I took of them – they might make a good antidote in the daily links.

    Maine Audubon has an ongoing program to educate people and protect the piping plovers that nest on the Atlantic coast . Any Mainiacs who would like to help can volunteer here.

    1. grayslady

      Chicagoans have gone crazy over protecting their piping plovers. Two plovers began a nest for the first time last year on one of the northerly Chicago beaches and the neighborhood demanded that the plovers be protected so the beach has basically be fenced off to the public. The plovers returned to build another nest this year to great excitement, and a group of neighbors has taken it upon themselves to monitor the area for intruders. The plovers have selected an open area for their nest so it has actually become a tourist attraction for anyone with a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens. The plovers seem fine with this arrangement and the babies are totally adorable.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    It’s a very difficult issue, dog owners are very resistant to the notion that their dogs are a threat to anything. I regularly see people in my local park (it has a semi-wild herd of deer) let dogs off the lead during fawning season despite numerous signs asking them not to. Its very distressing to see a curious dog go up to a deer clearly about to give birth.

    This issue killed a coastal walk/cycle route last year in a small town in the south of Ireland. It was supposed to run around an EU designated coastal wild bird site, meaning it requires a full ecological assessment. The issue of disturbance by humans walking and cycling was quite simple to address – the research indicated that even a low embankment was enough, when bird don’t see legs or wheels moving, they don’t get disturbed. But it quickly emerged that dogs were the real issue, and realistically the local Council realised that there was no way of enforcing leads. The only option would be an unsightly fence, which itself could be a potential hazard for some birds. So the proposal had to be scrapped.

    In a coastal bird sanctuary close to where I grew up, they did discover one accidental way to protect the birds from dogs. They built two links golf courses along the dunes. These are pretty disruptive, but it does have the advantage that the golf clubs don’t permit any dogs inside their lands. It appears that golfers don’t particularly bother the birds, as there are quite a number of rare species nesting there. Although oddly enough, dogs have been blamed for driving the hare to extinction on the island.

    1. wilroncanada

      Poor golfers?
      Nobody made a birdie? How about an eagle?
      D T Rump must never have played there. He would have made several birdies, mostly run down by his golf cart.

    2. Basil Pesto

      Links courses that are a bit more remote and less busy (and less hoity-toity) will tend to allow dogs, but nevertheless a course can be a considerable barrier between the shore and other animals.

      At a course I played in Port Fairy, a part of the fairway was tucked along a tall dune, and behind the dune was the beach. It was lightly fenced off as a nesting area for the Hooded Plovers (more detail at that link) and it seemed fairly safe for them, there didn’t seem to be many dogwalkers in the area and that part of the beach was relatively secluded..

      It was interesting that the article mentioned overflying aircraft weren’t so much of a problem, this article mentions that they may have been an issue for a critically endangered bird in NZ, although it may have been more of an issue because the aircraft were flying at lower altitude.

  3. furies

    Yeah people are pretty ridiculous about their dogs…”Not my Poopsie!!”

    Homeless humans? Go die.

    Homeless dogs? Oogey boogy woogie *swoon*

    The amount of money spent on pets is astounding.

    Leash laws are low priority and dog owners know it.

    One town I lived in sensitized me to how much dog poop and cigarette butts are invisible to a majority of the residents. I was told, when complaining about it, that I “should see the streets of Paris!” But I never have.

    1. occasional anonymous

      Homeless dogs also crap everywhere, just like the humans, but at least they don’t leave their trash just scattered about, even when there’s a trash can literally a hundred feet away.

    2. Arizona Slim

      Right on, furies! If we ever met in person, I would treat you to a round of your favorite drink.

      Here’s another thing that I don’t understand: Many dog lovers claim to be animal lovers. If that’s the case, why are they holding one in captivity? And why is there so little concern for the wildlife?

  4. ambrit

    On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, driving along the public beaches, one will see several Least Tern nesting sites roped off during the nesting season. The locals are doing yoeman’s work in trying to protect these stretches of shore habitat.
    Some of the local “hotheads” have suggested that volunteers be armed to lend weight to their protective function. I joked then, and still assert, that locals would soon see adverts along the line of; “Stand Your Beach Mississippi!”
    I wonder about the effects of rising sea levels on shoreline dwelling animal populations.
    Addendum. I just wondered about the expanding range of coyotes. My past history with coyotes involved a fair bit of shooting the buggers for my father in law when he had his little “Gentleman’s Farm,” with attendant livestock. Coyotes will kill and eat just about anything. We will have to become murderously creative if coyotes get to the Coast. [Coyotes may have already arrived at the beaches. the jury is still out on that question.]

  5. Thomas P

    Just try to make a few designated areas where you are allowed to let your dog run free, preferably with access to the water so they can take a swim. It’s much easier to enforce a ban if you can point to a better place.

    I imagine the outdoor or feral cats could be quite a problem too.

  6. Rod

    the world we must all learn to share is on us now–no looking away…

    The locals are doing yoeman’s work in trying to protect these stretches of shore habitat.

    surely part of the solution(sans weapons–someone threatens call 911) and also–

    Any Mainiacs who would like to help can volunteer here.

    Opportunities abound everywhere…

    NC restricted off road vehicle beach access for shore bird nesting season more than 10 years ago–you could hear the howl all the way to Raleigh but the NPS did not back down(back in the day)

    “We would really like everyone to abide by the posted areas and stay off islands that are marked as bird-nesting areas,” Schweitzer said. Also note that no dogs are allowed on posted islands. One dog can destroy an entire bird nesting colony in minutes, so please keep your dog on a leash at the beach and do not let them on bird nesting islands between April 1 and Aug. 31.

    and it works:

    1. o4amuse

      Not necessarily a reply to Rod but a comment on the thread in toto.

      Excellent. Now can we now have a heartfelt plea that ALL cat owners keep their pets indoors so they won’t eat all the birds and squirrels ? And perhaps this be enforced by law and omnipresent signage?

      1. Timmy


        This post should begin…”In addition to the staggering devastation of outdoor cats on wild bird populations.,..”

    1. Rod

      There is much to be said about the concept of personal responsibility, and lack of it.
      I believe it is a Heart Disease– of sort.

  7. juno mas

    In my coastal town there is yet another nesting disturber: fat tire electric bikes. The propensity of lazy Americans to destroy nature is unbounded.

  8. Alex Cox

    Here in Oregon certain beaches are closed to dogs for six months of the year, due to the presence of nesting snowy plovers.

    So, now and then, I’ve had to eschew a nice walk — for example the beachfront at Tahkenich, south of Florence — due to the presence of my plover pulverizer, Pearl.

    It all works fine. I don’t see any dog owners distraught since there are many other great beaches here (and all Oregon beaches are public property, thanks to a foresighted governor who declared them state highways). C’mon, Spain and Orange County!

  9. Adrian Handley

    Here in Hampshire southern England the beach I walk daily supports half of the counties nesting ringed plover. If there was a dog ban it would only need to be on one of the four miles of beach and specifically to the vegitated shingle above the high water mark. I have put warning signs up from May to July for the last 8 years, outside this time the signs are removed and any ban would be unnecessary. Bizarrely the local authority and the RSPB both support a plan to develop this protected site that is Sinah common SSSI Hayling island.

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