Life Science In defence of seagulls: They’re smart, and they co-parent, 50/50 all the way

In defence of seagulls: They’re smart, and they co-parent, 50/50 all the way

This gull contains multitudes. Photo: Armando Franca/Associated Press
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Here are three good things about gulls:

They are devoted parents.

Males share child care equally with females. That includes sitting on the eggs during incubation.

And they have figured out a way – actually many ways – to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. Some eat clams, some eat fish, some are attracted to landfills.

Of course, a few will divebomb you at the beach or boardwalk to steal a chip, or the cheese on your cracker, or an entire slice of pizza.

The beach pirate approach to survival is, of course, where humans and gulls clash. And the outcry from humans is almost as loud and outraged as the cries of the gulls themselves. Several recent news articles have chronicled the predations of gulls and some possible remedies.

Ocean City, New Jersey, is bringing in hawks, and some scientists have suggested staring directly at gulls to fend them off. That is hard to do when the birds sneak up behind you.

There are some reports of more serious trouble.

In England, a woman said a gull carried off her chihuahua, and in Russia, a pilot was hailed as a hero for safely landing his plane after a collision with a flock of gulls.

In the New York area, thousands of birds, including gulls, have been killed in the decade since the Miracle on the Hudson crash to clear the skies for aeroplanes, without an apparent reduction in bird strikes.

But it is at the beach where tempers flare. And in times like these, with heightened human-gull tensions, very little has been written about the gulls’ point of view.

Is there a Lorax who speaks for the gulls? Admittedly, gulls have quite a strong voice of their own, it’s just that it’s pretty unintelligible to most of us.

I called Christopher Elphick, an ornithologist at the University of Connecticut. He spends a lot of time studying sparrows but has a soft spot for gulls.

“They’ve found a way to succeed in the world,” he said. “So much biodiversity is suffering and disappearing and being lost. A part of me wants to just celebrate the fact that there are some organisms that can adapt and do well.”

Taylor Ouellette, left, and Mary Everett, undergraduate interns with Dr Sarah Courchesne’s research team on Appledore Island, measuring a gull’s head and bill to determine its sex and overall body size. Photo: Sarah Courchesne

There are more than 100 species of gulls worldwide, and they are doing well, by and large.

Some live nowhere near the sea, which makes birders and ornithologists allergic to the term “sea gull”, although renegade friends of common language have called this attitude “birdsplaining”.

A few, like the Ivory gull in the Arctic, which is near threatened, and the black-billed gull in New Zealand, which is endangered, are in trouble, but most are not.

The gulls that people are most likely to encounter on north-eastern US beaches in August are herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, ring-billed gulls and laughing gulls. Some of their populations are declining, but that is probably because they reached historic highs in the 20th century.

Before that time, some of those gulls were not found in New York or New Jersey. Herring gulls were first spotted nesting on Long Island in 1931, for instance. They began to spread in the 1960s and peaked in the ’80s.

Elphick said, and ornithologists and birders speculate, that the closing of open landfills like Fresh Kills on Staten Island may have something to do with the drop in numbers since then.

Sarah J Courchesne has been part of a summer gull research program at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine, since 2008.

She admits that the herring gulls and black-backed gulls there do not always take kindly to visitors. But these are breeding colonies, and the researchers take young birds off the nest, examine them and put identification bands on them.

“This is like somebody walked into your house in the night and picked up your child and tried to walk off with them,” she said. “You would be alarmed.”

As are the gulls. So much so that the volunteers wear bike helmets and sometimes ponchos. Gull poop can ruin a shirt.

“Some gulls are just kind of psycho and others are really chill,” she said.

Some birds sit quietly on a nest and allow themselves to be lifted off by volunteers who check the babies.

And the same variation occurs in how any given gull makes a living. Thousands and thousands forage for clams, follow fishing boats and shop at the local landfills.

“We have gulls that are never seen on beaches, and we know that because we have GPS loggers on them and they just never go near people,” Courchesne said. “They are 100 per cent out at sea fishing for their own food.

“I can’t deny that there are gulls that are stealing food. And I can’t deny they are really good at it.”

But the thieves are specialists. And to give credit where it is due, they have worked at their trade.

“If you’re dealing with a gull that is really talented at stealing food,” Courchesne said, “that gull has perfected the technique, possibly over the course of years.”

Also, the behaviour that bothers humans so much begins with humans themselves.

“Everybody who goes to the beach and gets aggravated by a gull has previous humans to thank for it,” Courchesne said.

You may not have given the gulls food, but somebody else did, and gulls are fast learners.

At nearby beaches on the mainland, she said, “You’ll see people drive up to the beach and they’ll just dump an entire container of french fries out their window so the gulls come.”

Elphick agreed. “We’re slobs,” he said.

“If we didn’t leave food lying around, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”

New York Times

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