If you’re reading this, you probably enjoy the outdoors. You probably like exploring and learning about all the wonderful things in our environment. This is a good thing. Many studies have shown that a love of nature in adults can often be traced to childhood. Hiking and camping, boating and fishing, or just plain playing in the vacant lot next door are all seeds of a lifelong connection to the living world — a connection that’s both good for one’s health and good for nature.
When I teach the Florida Master Naturalist course, I always tell students that we must put actions into perspective. There are actions of the past that may have been based on a different set of values or different best available science. It’s unfair to judge them based on what we know now.
As an example, think about how natural it was back in the day to catch tarpon and hang them up as trophies at the dock. Today we know how fragile the tarpon fishery is, and we go to great lengths to ensure its survival. Of course, it’s also regulated that way now, but still — different day, different information, different values.
There are also the actions of people who just don’t know any better or don’t see their actions as harmful. For example, collecting a single live conch or whelk may seem harmless enough — until you consider the cumulative effect of many people collecting live shells. Many tourists really don’t even realize that there is life inside the shell when they collect it, but they appreciate the beauty of the shell and the beauty of the coastal environment.
Shellfish, however, are an important part of the coastal food web. And as preeminent naturalist John Muir once said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
As naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts, young and old, it’s our responsibility to think about how our actions impact the world around us and be willing to modify our behavior when needed. Last week I was asked if I could help Charlotte County resource managers with a problem they are experiencing out on the beaches. The trouble is our furry pals — our dogs.
I asked for some talking points to help me write, and … well, these are so good, let’s just say the rest of my column was written by Rebekah Augustinowicz, my colleague from Charlotte County Parks and Natural Resources.
Our beaches are critical nesting habitat for various species of sea turtle, shorebirds and seabirds, and critical resting habitat to numerous species of birds on migration. These areas are so important because they hold the only suitable conditions to meet the needs of the species utilizing them. This includes the types of sand, elevation, temperature range, proximity to the water, and available food sources.
One issue we face is dogs flushing resting or feeding migratory birds, causing them to fly away during their long fragile journey from feeding grounds to nesting grounds. For many bird species, life is dependent on their ability to migrate long distances, sometimes from the Arctic to the Caribbean (and sometimes even farther!) to reach species-specific locations for essential activities such as feeding and nesting.
Along the way, they make pit stops to rest their wings and feed to obtain enough energy to continue along their journey. Disturbances from dogs along their migration route can be detrimental to their survival — especially when they are dependent on specific beach conditions for their food source.
When a nesting bird flushes, it leaves helpless eggs and flightless chicks unattended and exposed to both predators and extreme temperatures. Some occurrences (especially repeated ones) lead to the birds abandoning nesting sites and colonies.
Domestic dogs are viewed by birds the same ways as their predatory cousin the coyote, and can do just as much damage to nesting sites.
The smell of dogs and dog feces may discourage birds from nesting in areas considered critical nesting habitat for fear of predation.
Dogs are also viewed as a predator to nesting and hatching sea turtles. A dog’s naturally curious nature, smell and vocalizations can cause failed or abandoned nesting attempts for adult sea turtles. Likewise, dogs have often been found guilty of digging up sea turtle nests, destroying eggs, and harming hatchlings just as coyotes would.
FWC states that although free-running dogs present the biggest danger, leashed dogs also impact wildlife simply by their presence. Birds respond differently to dogs than they do to humans. They fly away from dogs sooner, fly away farther, and may be reluctant to return to the area, which means they might abandon their potential nesting area or leave chicks exposed to heat and predation.
You can help by obeying local and Florida state park rules on beaches closed to pets. There are several parks in Southwest Florida that welcome Fido. Our closest are Brohard Beach Paw Park in Venice and Dog Beach Park at Fort Myers Beach.
For more information about beach nesting shorebirds or how to be a wildlife-friendly pet owner, visit http://bit.ly/2Vx58wF.
Betty Staugler is the Charlotte County extension agent for the Florida Sea Grant Program. She is active in many areas relating to boating, fishing, and watershed/coastal living. The Florida Sea Grant College Program supports research and education activities that help Florida’s shoreline communities, industries and citizens wisely use the state’s coastal and marine resources. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-764-4346.