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Harbour Herring Gulls: Are you a gull friend?

Photo by David Gange

 

Article by Jess Bone

 

Seagulls do not exist.

 

That’s right. There is no such thing as a seagull. Now that’s not to say the birds themselves do not exist – they are undeniably present, with a confident pitter patter of webbed feet along rooftops, eyeing up sausage rolls and chips held tight by wary folk below.

 

But what do we really know about them? They have as bad a reputation as pigeons, sometimes worse, a coastal flying rat which does not deserve an association with nature or urban wildlife because it is a pest - nothing more and nothing less. It is therefore difficult to imagine that all species of gull in the UK are protected by the European Birds Directive and that all are either on amber or red conservation status.

 

Take the herring gull, the large gull species most people have troublesome encounters with. They have flocked to urban areas over the past few years, nesting on roofs. Their numbers are on the decline nationally by over 50% since 1970, and are the only species to have decreased in number between all 3 major national censuses (Mitchell et al. 2006). And yet they seem so abundant? This is down to a classic situation of nature taking advantage of our lifestyles; as they decline in their natural habitat they move in to ours, appearing more abundant simply because we see them on our doorstep more.

 

Their move from the rural coastal cliff sites is down to a lack of their fish prey due to overfishing and loss of coastal cliff habitat (Mitchell et al. 2006). In Poole Harbour, these factors were combined with their persecution as pests, and 930 breeding pairs on Brownsea Island in 1973 were reduced to just 100 pairs five years later. Since the Clean Air Act of 1956, which prevented the burning of household waste, open landfills tempted these opportunistic birds closer to urban areas where they discovered other feeding opportunities; rubbish bags left unprotected outside homes, litter left discarded on streets, and people who were willing to chuck them a chip or two.

 

The herring gulls moved in.

 

What is the herring gull? A beady-eyed individual, they make fiercely protective parents who will continue feeding their chicks, even when failed-fledge attempts dislodge them from the nest. They are slow-maturing and long lived animals, with an individual that was ringed in 1965 being seen in 1997, making it at least 32 years old. It will take a herring gull four years to take on fully adult plumage, which explains why quite often it is young-looking individuals you see. They are also far from being bird-brained, with documented cases of tool-use and intriguing behavioural techniques of obtaining food and killing live prey (Henry and Aznar 2006; Young 1987). Another marker of their intelligence is their complex social behaviour with a wide variety of vocal and visual signals- they have been known to display frustration by pulling at plants (Nelson 1980)! They provide ecosystem services that we are perhaps loath to acknowledge; namely clearing up our discarded organic waste and litter (including dog mess...) and dispersing seeds within their droppings.

 

In the interests of fairness however, there have been a handful of incidents where they have been linked to the spread of harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Enterococcus (Fogarty et al. 2003). Their intelligence is ranked lower than corvids and parrots, even garden birds (Zorina and Obozova 2012). Like some other bird species in the harbour, including corvids, herons and other gulls, herring gulls will sometimes predate chicks and eggs of other birds. And it is undeniable that at times they can be somewhat of a nuisance.

 

Ultimately their proliferation within our towns and failure to survive within their natural habitat is our fault - Poole town centre now has the highest density of herring gulls in the harbour. They have learnt that humans will give them what they need to not only survive but thrive within our towns and cities, but are less and less abundant on coastal cliffs and rural sites, or found fishing at sea. When humans occupy greater areas, habitat loss occurs and the displaced wildlife must adapt or risk local extinction - foxes and starlings also face similarly complex relationships with urban landscapes. Greater understanding of urban gull ecology is necessary before we quantify them as a ‘problem’ (Rock 2005).

 

So spare a thought for the animal behind the beady eyes, as they adapt to an increasingly urban world that they are tempted into by our wastefulness; now persecuted when they behave like pests. Will you be a gull-friend?

 

References

  • Fogarty, L. R., Haack, S. K., Wolcott, M. J. & Whitman, R. L. 2003. Abundance and characteristics of the recreational water quality indicator bacteria Escherichia coliand enterococci in gull faeces. Journal of Applied Microbiology 94, 865-878.
  • Henry, P.-Y. & Aznar, J.-C. 2006. Tool-use in Charadrii: active bait-fishing by a Herring Gull. Waterbirds 29, 233-234.
  • Hopper, N., 2016. Breeding gulls of Poole Harbour. Poole: Birds of Poole Harbour. 
  • Mitchell, P.I., Newton, S.F., Ratcliffe, N.R. and Dunn, T.E., 2006. Seabird populations of Britain and Ireland: the last 30 years. In: Boere, G.C., Galbraith, C.A. and Stroud, D.A., 2006. Waterbirds around the World. Edinburgh: The Stationery Office.
  • Nelson, B. 1980. Seabirds: Their Biology and Ecology. Hamlyn, London.
  • Overington, S. E., Morand-Ferron, J., Boogert, N. J. & Lefebvre, L. 2009. Technical innovations drive the relationship between innovativeness and residual brain size in birds. Animal Behaviour 78 1001-1010.
  • Rock, P., 2005. Urban gulls: problems and solutions. British Birds, 98, 338-355.
  • Young, H. G. 1987. Herring gull preying on rabbits. British Birds 80, 630.
  • Zorina, Z. A. & Obozova, T. A. 2012. New data on the brain and cognitive abilities of birds. Biology Bulletin 39, 1-17.

 

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