I entered the not-so-glamorous world of the seagull on a chilly winter’s afternoon recently as part of a survey of birds many people call “rats with wings”.
I’d never describe Tasmania’s three species of gull – the silver, kelp and Pacific – as such but I must say to study them does make demands on the observer to get down and dirty.
As part of BirdLIfe Tasmania’s annual survey, gulls are counted across the state to determine if their number is increasing or decreasing, and the factors which might determine either of those outcomes.
As expected the gull count in Hobart and its satellite cities requires visits to rubbish dumps and sewage outlets. I was lucky not to draw the short straw and find myself knee-deep in rank rubbish at the Hobart tip. My patch involved the far more pleasant environment of both shores of the Derwent stretching from the Tasman Bridge to Bridgewater.
In coastal environments, people and gulls tend to share the same space. Gulls are, in fact, the most obvious of birds apart from sparrows scrounging crumbs at picnic sites but we know little of their natural history. At fish punts on the waterfront and at fast-food outlets a little further into town, they present themselves as a nuisance. Unlike birds of the bush, colourful and with beautiful songs, we tend not to stop and look at gulls. If it wasn’t for the squawking, and boldness in stealing chips, they would pass under the radar.
We have much to learn from gulls, however. Their diet in our cities mirrors our own and it is not surprising that the humble gull suffers the same health problems resulting from a poor diet as humans.
Comparisons between silver gulls inhabiting Bass Strait islands and those found in Hobart reveal that the city ones are far fatter – dare I say obese – and have health conditions related to abnormal weight, high levels of cholesterol among them.
Despite their image on the waterfront, gulls are exceedingly graceful and beautiful if we take the time to study them. Unlike other parts of the world, Tasmania and Australia as a whole has few species of gull, if we exclude the closely related terns which catch live food and do not generally scavenge for it.
My favourite gull is the Pacific, which has a whiter, crisper plumage than the similar kelp gull and can be identified by its big, flattened orange and yellow beak. As expected, I didn’t find any on my latest survey (they are marine species not found in the upper Derwent) but there were plenty of silver gulls (467) to keep me occupied, plus 80 kelp gulls. In total, the population counted across the state revealed all species are holding their own.
At the end of the day, I was sitting outside McDonald’s in Bridgewater, an unfamiliar environment for me but one familiar to Hobart’s gulls. A silver gull was fixing me with its silver eye. I knew that French fries were bad for both us, an overweight me and an overweight gull. But I couldn’t resist sharing my Big Mac and large fries.