“Our coasts play host to some of the biggest and best seabird colonies in the world.”
Perhaps the most iconic sea bird, in the UK anyway, is the seagull. Actually, there isn’t such a thing as a seagull, it tends to be a term used informally to describe a number of species which include the common gull and herring gull.
Whilst gulls are clearly associated with the sea, they do thrive in cities as well. The built up concrete jungles we have created work much like artificial cliffs and the conveniently close landfill sites provide them with a nice array of food. Not that gulls are particularly fussy about what they eat. However, they are often unwelcome visitors to our towns, creating noise and mess and apparently attacking people and pets. They are certainly a controversial bird but they do keep rats at bay and what would a day at the seaside be without the calls of a gull overhead.
If you think of gulls from a gull perspective, they are doing a great job at what they do. They are highly adaptable, competitive, they seize opportunities (or chips) and those attacks you hear of, that’s parent gulls defending their family. And just in case their loud cries aren’t enough of a warning, you’ll want to leave nesting gulls alone as they are protected by law.
They have a bad reputation in our society today but this hasn’t always been the case. For example, Manannan Mac Lir is a celtic god who often appears in the form of a seagull. Gulls can also help sailors by foretelling storms. It was first recorded in 1BC that when they were unusually active and noisy a storm was coming. And whilst gulls are said to predict death it is also believed that they can save sailors from danger.
Another popular belief is that gulls are the souls of sailors who died at sea. The same is said of many sea birds including albatrosses and storm petrels who have been thought to embody the souls of cruel captains who were condemned to eternity flying over the seas.
The canary on the cliff face
Almost ten years ago, a Radio 4 programme discussed declining sea bird numbers and what this means for the health of the sea. Sea birds are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to potential issues in the sea. They are messengers from the vast oceans bringing back warnings and the songs they are singing are not good.
Populations have fallen dramatically and experts are attributing this to the warming UK waters. This in turn impacts on the amount of zooplankton which impacts on everything further up the food chain. For our UK sea birds, this means sand eels, a critically important food source, have disappeared from some parts of the Atlantic and North Sea. Less food available inevitably means starvation, death of individuals and plummeting species numbers.
Our sea birds also feel the impact of overfishing, oil spills, pollution and habitat reduction and fragmentation. They are being attacked on all sides and if we don’t listen to their cries for help, more and more will at threat of extinction.
Can you imagine the British sea side without the ka-ka-ka-ka-kaows of the gulls?