Fluffy and fragile: uncertain times for a seabird chick

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Keep up to date with the latest wildlife and nature news in Scotland. Regular blogs from RSPB Scotland's conservation teams across the country. Writing about Scotland's amazing wildlife & natural environment.

Fluffy and fragile: uncertain times for a seabird chick

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As seabirds leave, or prepare to leave our shores for another year, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer Peadar O'Connell brings us this new blog about seabird chicks and the future they face. 

A fluffy fulmar chick on a cliff ledge on Orkney

It’s approaching the end of the season and seabird chicks have or will soon be leaving the nest to face the great blue yonder... Most seabirds are colony nesters, this offers protection from predators whilst resulting in incessant bickering among neighbours, it’s a noisy sometimes tense compromise but one that works for them.  

Chicks in the centre of this maelstrom may lead surprisingly sheltered lives, cared for and physically protected by their parents who take it in turns to provide food. In good years, when seas are productive, their parents don’t have to travel very far for fish (such as sandeel or sprat), but in bad years they may be away from the nest for some time, meaning chicks are vulnerable. However, if all goes well, big fat chicks will fledge between June and August, well provisioned for their new life at sea.

Of late, there have been more bad years than good ones and shocking declines has been the result. After years of bad news stories about seabirds it won’t surprise anyone that they are still in decline. It’s worth repeating the figures however because they are truly frightening, and we shouldn’t get blasé about them.

By 2015, breeding numbers of the 12 regularly monitored species of breeding seabirds in Scotland was 50% lower than the 1986 level, a steep decline in just 30 years, makes you wonder, what will happen in the next 30? (Scottish Natural Heritage’s Seabird Biodiversity Indicator)

Lesser black-backed gull chick chasing its sibling behind a rock.

While a small number of species such as the gannet have actually increased, the majority have not, for example the magnificent Arctic skua has declined by 81% again in the last 30 years. Although the reasons for the declines can be complex and even differ across the country, they  are happening largely because seabirds are not managing to produce and fledge young birds. Chicks are the lifeblood of seabird colonies but they are literally starving to death on our cliffs and coastlines. 

An Arctic skua chick, Arctic skuas nest in short vegetation in upland areas.

I hesitate to use cute “baby bird” pictures for a blog about the struggles faced by seabirds, and appreciate this might be seen as a sentimental ploy, attempting to pull at the heart strings. The reality is however, that these birds are in serious trouble but they are also amazing, beautiful, stunning creatures and we are fortunate that they make up some of the spectacular biodiversity of Scotland. We are still finding out so much about the lives of seabirds including where they go to find food in UK and Irish waters (see here) and all this information is critical in planning appropriate conservation management.

Shags with two inquisitive youngsters

With your help, RSPB Scotland are tackling some of the pressures seabirds face in feeding their young and it is for this reason that we were very happy to see 15 proposed Special Protection Areas for foraging and wintering seabirds being brought forward for public consultation between 2016 and early 2017 (see previous blog here). 

We are now waiting for these sites to be fully designated. This won’t solve all the problems seabirds face but these are tough birds and if we can reduce the pressures we are putting on their populations they have a much better opportunity to raise healthy well fed chicks. Therefore these sites should be designated as soon as possible and appropriate management measures put in place to ensure they provide the protection they promise. Seabird chicks are survivors, but the world they are growing up in is increasingly hostile. Without action we might lose them from our coasts for good and that would be a very sad thing.

  • Fingers crossed that all 15 sites are successfully designated.  I found your use of the baby birds to be highly appropriate as you centred your post of the survival of chicks - and it was lovely to see the offspring of a lesser black-backed gull along with those birds the general public seem to like more.