Learning To Love Gulls

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By Peter Puskic

Beach chickens, sky rats, chip thieves, and the bane of all picnics. With a reputation as infamous as this, it’s hard to love our gulls. For one, they’re not the most attractive birds, presenting a plain white plumage and an even more off-putting brown coat when in juvenile morph, these birds are nothing when compared to the bold blue display of our wrens or the speckled triumph of the pardalote. They don’t produce the most captivating call either, something stuck between a bossy toddler that didn’t get their way and my friends and I singing (screeching) ‘our song’ after too many drinks at the bar. But despite this badly dressed, poorly spoken bird, part of me is starting to fall for the humble gull. Maybe I’ve lowered my standards, maybe I’m into the trashy, edgy kind of bird, or maybe there is more to gulls than the negative stereotypes that we’ve imparted on our feathered friends.

These gulls have stories to tell. Adventures on islands and rugged coasts, up rivers to wetlands, venturing far into the dangerous and unpredictable streets of the urban world. Gulls have adapted to live nearly everywhere including alongside us. If you’re looking for a strong and reliable partner, then the gull is your bet. In fact, it’s their loyalty to their roosting sites that first lured me in.

My guard down, I fell in love. On a cold Tasmanian morning there they’d be, huddled on the oval watching me as I arrive at university and they’d return to farewell me as I made my way home, rising and falling with the wind.

Like kites soaring to the west. Winged silhouettes against the setting sun, onward to their roost. This cycle, now part of my daily routine. Wake with the gulls, watch them from the lab window and follow them home.

Have you ever listened to ‘the long call’ of a gull? It rings out across the beach following the of breaking waves on the shore. The sense of nostalgia it instils; a seaside holiday with family, driving along the foreshore with friends over summer break, walking barefoot in the sand while hoping the long days and sun-drenched weather will last forever. Notice the dominance of the silver gulls fighting for your food. They bark at each other, heads bowed with necks arched, “those scraps are mine!” the leader bellows and the lower gulls fall into place. Gull behaviour is fascinating and intricate. They share their spoils and respect territory. Sentinel gulls sound the alarm when danger threatens the colony but their warnings are not always this clear and so obvious.

On my weekend walks, I’d find the gulls perched along the boardwalks and the piers. One could guarantee even on the most miserable of days there they would stand strong, with white feathers protruding from the grey fog, eyes fixed on me and mine on them. If you were observant and walked with caution, you may find messages dropped by my adventurous gull friends, scattered across the wooden bridges are boluses – pellets containing all the indigestible bits of their food like crab claws and fish bones. Look beyond this and you’ll decode the warnings within. These regurgitated pellets show the true cost of living ‘alongside’ us. Glass, bottle caps, aluminium foil and plastic is interlaced with some traces of the gulls’ natural food. Our gulls, like so many seabirds, have fallen victim to the Anthropocene and to our plastic addiction but, does anyone care about a ‘beach rat’?

It may surprise you to know that gulls are quite long lived, easily reaching upwards of 30 years old in most species.

This means they’ve lasted though the rapid changes and urban growth in the last three decades, but this doesn’t mean they are thriving. Apart from a weird spike in numbers this year, gull populations in Southern Tasmania are slowly declining. What of my gulls in the North? Well, that’s never been documented and I’m starting to worry for them, there’s so much we don’t know and never will, because no one has cared to look. Because we do not love our gulls.

In 1993 plastic was found in only 1% of Tasmanian Pacific Gull regurgitates. In 2014, those gulls taking refuge on islands far from urban centres in the Bass Straight were recorded at 2.3%. The Pacific Gulls of Launceston, my gulls, have plastic in 90% of all of their boluses. Black, pink and yellow plastic bags, hard blue fragments and lengths of coiled dental floss create a detailed tapestry on the boardwalk. The birds have been eating shards of glass too, sharp and jagged, it’s a wonder they could get them out. There are beer bottlecaps too, cigarette filters, glitter and an aluminium soda can ring. Fishing line that is several metres in length. A milk bottle cap still screwed together to its counterpart.

And so, the gulls are giving us a warning. Something is very wrong. Is it our waste management? Is it our waste production? Or is it a desperate attempt to survive in an environment so altered by urbanisation? We may not ever know. I have learned to not only love our gulls but to listen to their warnings, will you?