Why seagulls settle in our cities

It remains to be seen whether North American gulls will become more urbanized like their European cousins, but there are signs they could.

In Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, seabird ecologist Louise Blight studied the nests of gray-winged gulls using drones. Downtown numbers have increased tenfold since the 1980s. Some have also moved their nests further from the shore, but only about a kilometer away. This may allow them to avoid predators such as bald eagles, Blight says.

Chemical analysis of gray-winged gull feathers collected between 1860 and 2009 indicates that birds consume less fish over time, which Blight associates with a decrease in fish availability. This could have pushed these GPs to seek their subsistence elsewhere. But Blight thinks it’s unrelated to urban nesting. “We also see rooftop nesters feeding their chicks fish,” she explains.

“We tend to think of gulls as simple garbage eaters, but there is a lot of research showing that they do best when they eat fish,” she says.

Gulls first settled in our cities and suburbs, gull biologists say, because of the safety high roofs offer against disturbance and predators. But ecologically, gulls are jack-of-all-trades and opportunists. A study of small black backs gulls transferred between a Russian island and southern Finland found that the birds were not locally adapted, but rather very flexible to exploit the habitat in which they are found.

“Gulls are at the height of avian intelligence,” says Rock. Their natural curiosity and ability to learn help them adapt to new environments. A recent study found that more than half of the gulls were ready to touch and explore a plexiglass food box on a beach.

But there are well-known problems with the movement of gulls in urban areas – the typical tactic of birds to defend their nests is to intruder circle or dive bomb anything that ventures too close. Unfortunately, in cities this invariably means humans. Most direct attacks do not involve any contact, but aggressive gulls can strike with their feet. The noise produced by the large colonies of these birds also attracts many complaints from human residents, Rock explains.

About Cheryl Viola

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