The little least tern is a rare bird that lays its tiny eggs in the shallow sands of coastal Alabama, which also happens to be the natural habitat of sunburned beach goons in the the sweaty summer month. That combination resulted in a massacre last month, wildlife experts say, when a group of oceangoers disturbed a beach full of nesting least terns and killed hundreds in the process.
“The people had collected all the eggs from the nests to clear out an area to play volleyball. The people had actually made a little dome of sand and placed the eggs around it to decorate it,” Andrew Haffenden of Birmingham Audubon’s Coastal Bird Survey told AL.com. Moving the grape-sized eggs, which least tern parents sit on to keep cool, puts them in danger of getting baked by the hot sun.
“The thing about the eggs, people think, ‘oh, they’re eggs,’ but they are also almost fully formed chicks inside. They can walk almost as soon as they hatch,” Haffenden said. “In that pile of eggs, there were a number that were about to hatch. In fact, if you look at the pictures of the pile you can see an egg that showed pipping (cracks where a chick is pecking its way out of the shell). What the people did was take those eggs away from the protection of the parents from the sun. So we had dozens of functional chicks die by being baked. It’s pretty nasty.”
The least tern is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, along with the Justice Department, is now investigating the carnage. While intentionally killing a migratory bird is against the law, a Trump administration guidance issued in December declared that incidental or accidental murder is no longer a crime. This rule applies for both individuals and industry.