Nature & Science



A Western gull guards her brood
Western Gull guarding her brood

Many visitors to the island have no idea that Alcatraz is a premiere spot for viewing colonial nesting seabirds. Most seabirds nest on inaccessible offshore rocks. The determined bird lover would need a boat and some fancy binoculars to get a glimpse. But Alcatraz visitors can see the mating, nesting and parenting behaviors of these charismatic creatures up close.

Long before humans set foot on the island, Alcatraz was home to thousands of nesting birds. The first humans to interact with these birds were Native Americans, who hunted and possibly collected eggs for food. The name Alcatraz itself came from Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala who named one of the islands in the bay "Isle de los Alctraces" or "Island of the Seabirds" for the multitudes of avian life he observed.

bird's eye view of a Brandt's cormorant nesting colony
Bird's eye view of a Brandt's Cormorant colony

In the 1800's Alcatraz was sometimes refered to as Bird Island or White Island, but things changed with the arrival of people. Nesting birds became less common during the military and penitentiary eras. Today, as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz is once again a sanctuary for seabirds. Nesting birds are counted annually, and management actions are adjusted to avoid disturbance during this sensitive time (February through September).

Even if you've been to the island many times before, try a visit from late winter through early summer with an eye for birds, and you may see Alcatraz in a whole new way! Visit the Information Station at the dock and take a Birds on the Rock checklist and learn more about these natural treasures.

Learn more about the seabirds of Alcatraz and get to know the fascinating behaviors of some of the most common breeding birds on the island - cormorants, gulls, night herons, egrets, and pigeon guillemots.



Although Alcatraz was once a barren rock and ideally suited as a seabird rookery, the arrival of humans changed all that. With the arrival of the U.S. Army and Lighthouse Service, came families who wanted to beautify the island. They brought soil and plants and established gardens. You can see the remenants of these historic gardens on the island today.

Last updated: December 22, 2020

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Alcatraz Island
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
201 Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA 94123


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