Dogs!

Our best friend is a killer.

A dog goes for a run on the beach. Fun for him, not for shorebirds.

Pied Oystercatcher
Pied Oystercatcher, Photo: Kevin Kucks

ONE snapshot of Australia is of a beach with an Outback, and natural predators stalking them both.

However, imported predators are a bigger menace, at least for Australia’s birds.

Cats are killing the interior, but the greater threat to birds on our beaches is dogs. Pampered pet dogs can be just as deadly to ancient bird nurseries on beaches as marauding feral cats are to inland rosellas.

The average feral cat in the bush eats more than a dozen native birds a day. Australia’s favourite birds, superb fairy (blue) wrens, are an easy, low-nesting victim, and all birds from bustards to scrubtits and bronzewing pigeons are premium cat bush tucker.

But if a 10kg cat eats 16 birds a day in the wilds, what’s going down the throat of a 20kg feral dog?

The best estimates are that we seven billion people share the planet’s living resources with half a billion dogs.

There are 3.4 million dogs in Australian backyards, with another two million wild (most with dingo genes) feeding off hapless sheep, calves and marsupials.

To give them their due, wild dogs also eat wild cats.

However, blowing the whistle on the marauding impact of those 3.4 million home-based pooches is asking to get one’s shins barked.

Dogs are man’s and woman’s best friend.

Confronting these descendants of the wolves can lead to the sort of growl or bite back from their owners that trains us dog-worriers to become instantly submissive.

My own love of dogs was challenged in 2010 when the Senate inquiry into koalas was told about the Brisbane backyard in which pet Alsatians had killed seven koalas, on separate occasions, with no action taken.

The koalas had kept up their age-old practice of moving from tree to tree via the ground rather than adjusting, like possums, to the spread of suburbia.

One expert witness gave the inquiry a shocking account of thousands of wild dogs in central western Queensland marauding sheep grazing country and, while they were at it, decimating the woodlands koala population.

These killers are illegal, out of control and unpopular.

Yet on Australia’s beaches, tamed and much-loved dogs are killing native fauna, especially birds, with a different twist — the dogs in this case are legally sanctioned.

Of course, no council or government or individual advocates killing shorebirds.

But just as licensing poker machines kills bank accounts and disrupts hapless homes, so licensing off-leash dogs on beaches kills birds and disrupts hapless nesting sites.

Dogs want to kill birds. They may be trained out of it, but their instinct is to pounce.

While studies show nesting birds are less disturbed by humans with leashed dogs than humans with off-leash dogs, the push for more off-leash beaches is growing as people become wealthier, more mobile and more inclined to travel.

Birds that nest in sand dunes above high tide are no match for dogs.

Oyster catchers and hooded plovers, along with little terns and beach stone-curlews, lay marvellously camouflaged eggs at ground level, but their nests have few other defences. The best the birds can do is put on a “broken wing” or other diversionary act to distract a predator away from their eggs or nestlings.

Dog walkers rarely see their dogs crush, trample or eat the camouflaged eggs and chicks. They are less likely still to see such indirect consequences as the chicks being taken by predator hawks or gulls while the adult birds are diverting dogs away or, on hot days, the eggs or chicks baking to death in the sunshine.

Many people enjoy walking along the beach with their dog scampering ahead and around them, but few see their canine companion as a bird-killer, let alone its presence being more disruptive to bird life than human beings themselves.

Dogs threaten migratory birds that are getting ready for their flight to the Arctic each winter. Repeated disruption to their shoreline feeding means they don’t gain enough weight to survive the flight.

Shorebirds such as the pied oyster catcher are at risk from uncontrolled canines. Picture

Shorebirds such as the pied oyster catcher are at risk from uncontrolled canines. Picture: Paul Wainwright.

On some beaches valiant efforts are made to section off prime nesting areas with signs, ribbons or fences.

However, nesting and fledging occurs in spring and summer when humans flock to beaches with dogs. The best of fences are no barrier for an unleashed terrier or springer smelling chicken.

Forlorn signs request that dogs off leashes be kept under control. Tell that to the pile of plover feathers, let alone the bandicoot with a broken neck, along the track.

Even politely chastising a rampant bull mastiff as it springs through the beach-end boulders, scattering Pacific gull chicks never to recover, is like remonstrating with a stranger’s unruly children — one risks vilification, if not an on-the-spot assault.

As one stroppy youth shot back at me in just this situation: “They’re only bloody gulls!”

The nation’s key bird protection group, BirdLife Australia, takes an educative approach to dealing with calls for more “dog-friendly” (bird-deadly) beaches. It holds “Dogs Breakfasts” at beaches to help more caring dog owners avoid bird disturbances.

Yet it noted in a 2012 submission to Victoria’s Bass Coast Shire Council, seeking to protect hooded plover nesting sites, that “our research has shown that dog walkers can sometimes be a group that places more importance on access to off-leash beaches than to the needs of threatened wildlife”.

Scientists estimate a third of Australia’s bird species may go to extinction this century, and half of the rest next century.

As a community, we are not seriously addressing such contributing factors to this dire outlook as climate change, acidification of the oceans, millions of tonnes of floating plastics, the collapse of fisheries and the rapid loss of Asian mudflats, which are vital feeding grounds along the migratory birds’ flight paths.

Yet dog owners are almost always animal lovers and are not willing agents of beach bird infanticide.

I expect most people would back a state or national policy of on-leash-only dog walking on beaches and shoreline tracks, and would happily comply if everyone else did as well.

Bob Brown

This article appeared in The Mercury, 28th October 2014.


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