What comes to mind upon hearing the name Alcatraz Island? Many think of prison for hardcore villains. Others visualize a mysterious island in San Francisco Bay. Both are right, but there is more to the Alcatraz story.
You may be surprised that the island with a haunting history is a birding destination. Traditionally, it has harbored seabirds. However, some unlikely new residents now call Alcatraz Island home.
We must quickly examine the island’s human and avian history to understand why the new residents are surprising.
Brief History of Alcatraz Island
When Alcatraz was discovered in 1775 by early Spanish explorers led by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, it was a seabird habitat. The island housed so many birds that the explorers named it Isla de los Alcatraces. It translates to “Isle of the Seabirds” or “Isle of the Pelicans.”
The United States government purchased the island in 1849, using it for a military fortress in the 1850s, building America’s first west coast lighthouse in 1854. Alcatraz became an army prison in 1859, then a maximum security federal prison from 1934 to 1963.
During this stretch of more than 100 years, the birds virtually disappeared from the island. As more people appeared, the birds fled. Even the infamous Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” did not have birds during his time on “The Rock.” He earned the nickname while caring for birds and returning them to health at Leavenworth Prison.
When the federal prison closed in 1963 and human occupants vacated the island, the birds slowly returned. Alcatraz, one of many national park sites near San Francisco, moved under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1972. Although Alcatraz is one of the most popular attractions in San Francisco, the NPS takes measures to protect the birds, like closing park sections during certain times of the year.
Due to NPS conservation efforts, the island remains a thriving waterbird habitat. Although many seabirds have returned, pelicans are not known to nest on Alcatraz Island today. So, what types of birds nest there today?
Waterbirds of Alcatraz
The Rock has long been a waterbird sanctuary, mainly due to a lack of predators. More than 5,000 nesting birds make their home on the National Historic Landmark, including pigeon guillemots, snowy egrets, California gulls, western gulls, black-crowned night herons, black oystercatchers, Canada geese, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, Brandt’s cormorants, and Pelagic cormorants.
Tree-dwelling Birds of Alcatraz
Walking the grounds, visitors may observe tree-dwelling birds such as the white-crowned sparrow, Anna’s hummingbird, song sparrow, common raven, and black phoebe.
Unlikely New Residents of Alcatraz
Renowned as a seabird sanctuary, park biologists and rangers did not anticipate encountering raptors on Alcatraz. Park biologists first spotted a pair of peregrine falcons breeding on Alcatraz in 2019.
The peregrine falcons began nesting on Alcatraz in 2020 for the first time in recorded history. Each season since the couple have hatched two to three chicks. In early April 2023, the NPS announced the pair of nesting peregrine falcons welcomed four chicks to the island.
Why is this remarkable? There are a few reasons.
Peregrine falcons teetered on the brink of extinction in the mid-1970s. Concerted conservation efforts led to a rebound in their numbers. Although peregrine falcons came off the endangered species list in 1999, they remain federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Peregrine falcons are known to inhabit the island in fall and winter, typically departing by February. Now that the couple is regularly nesting, they plan to stay.
Although the birds of prey live on every continent except Antarctica, including many oceanic islands, they have forged new ground with the move. We have entered uncharted territory.
Future Impact on the Alcatraz Waterbirds
What does this mean for the future of the Alcatraz waterbird population? Although it is terrific to see peregrine falcons thriving, Alcatraz is no longer a sanctuary without predators. The peregrine falcons are the apex predator in this territory. With a diving speed of over 200 miles per hour, the birds of prey will rule the roost.
Many park visitors have observed peregrine falcons knocking other birds out of the air. Park biologists and rangers plan to monitor the situation closely, hoping to learn more about their behavior, diet, and interactions with other bird species.
Birding on Alcatraz Island
When is the best time to visit Alcatraz Island if your primary goal is to spot birds? Seabird nesting season typically runs from February to August, with peak activity from April through June. Visitors may see courting rituals, nest building, and proud parents rearing their young.
Although rangers close sections of the park from February to September to protect the birds, visitors still have excellent views. However, the peregrine falcon nest sits in an inaccessible area.
An Alcatraz visit always made an interesting, if not an educational, experience. Sure, Alcatraz has harbored human apex predators in the past. Now, avian apex predators call it home, giving you another reason to do time on Alcatraz Island.
Featured image credit: Markus Lauff
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About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.