Almost everyone can recognise the 'seagull' - a familiar and iconic bird to our coastal towns. Gulls are a natural part of our coastal wildlife here in Wales, the rocky coast and tranquil islands provide them with the perfect home. Love them or hate them, the birds’ graceful flight and mastery of the air, and distinctive sound is synonymous with the seaside and without their presence the visitors’ experience just wouldn’t be the same.
Personally I love them, and spent a lot of time over the last few months with the kids watching as the herring gulls nested on nearby roof tops, hatched their chicks and fed them up. They’ve all flown the nest now, and it’s a lot quieter on a morning without them – but it wouldn’t be right living near the sea and never seeing or hearing them.
This got me thinking, so often people ask why do we want to protect seabirds, and why are they important? So while I’m not about to spend hours trying to win you over if you aren’t a fan, or try and tell you what you already know if you are one – I thought I’d give a few, hopefully interesting answers , and if you have any more to throw in, please do!
In general, seabirds live longer, breed later and have fewer young than other birds do, but they invest a great deal of time in their young. Apart from the obvious aesthetic qualities, you’ve got to love their hardiness and resourcefulness. Take kittiwakes – nesting on cliffs so steep, that the chicks instinctively sit still in the nest to avoid falling off. When they do take their first flight, as early as 33 days, they face a leap of faith as they plummet from the cliff towards the sea below.
Species like the herring gull and lesser blacked back are those most commonly seen in our cities, both adapting to life inland. The herring gull has learnt a nifty trick and may be observed rhythmically drumming their feet upon the ground for prolonged periods of time in a behavior that superficially resembles Irish step-dancing. This is for the purpose of creating vibrations in the soil, driving earthworms to the surface, which are then consumed by the gull. Despite the perception that their numbers are increasing, the population has actually decreased by 50% in 25 years, and are now on the red list of threatened bird species.
But why are they important? Human impacts on ocean wildlife often get less attention because it’s much harder to observe the changes going on under water than those on land. But seabirds can help scientists monitor those changes because they can be counted in their coastal colonies, and because they’re at the top of the food chain so their numbers also reflect what’s happening to their prey.
Annual global fisheries landings were measured in 2004 at 80 million tonnes, and seabirds worldwide consume similar quantities of fish. With such strong dependence on shared resources, one which is increasingly diminishing, it is not surprising that we look to seabirds for additional insights into the status of fish stocks and the health of marine ecosystems.
Of course their not the only reasons why seabirds are important – there are many other cultural, historical and ecological reasons.
So let me finish with the more superstitious. Sailors believed that killing a gull would bring bad luck, as seabirds were believed to carry the souls of dead sailors. In Northern France it was believed that storm petrels were the spirits of sea-captains who mistreated their crew, doomed to spend eternity flying over the sea. Another sailing superstition holds that the appearance of a storm petrel foretells bad weather, unsurprising as the name storm petrel is a reference to their habit of the bird hiding in the lee of ships during storms!
If you missed it the Spring watch on the 24th of August go online and check it out, some very good coverage of Welsh island and some fantastic coverage of seabirds in general.
All images courtesy RSPB images - above herring gull, right black headed gull