Birds can teach us a lot about ourselves and the world we live in.
I am reminded of this fact each year when I set off on the annual count of seagulls conducted by Birdlife Tasmania.
It is important to keep an eye on our silver, Pacific and kelp gulls because – along with all species of birds – they are a vital barometer of environmental health.
In Tasmania’s urban areas it has been found that the silver gulls who cadge and steal food at fast-food outlets and feed on food waste on the Hobart and Glenorchy rubbish tips are overweight and unfit.
Research a few years back comparing silver gulls on Bass Strait islands with those in the Hobart area found their health mirrored that of humans with a fondness for fast food. They had high levels of cholesterol in their blood along with ailments associated with being overweight and obese.
My citizen science excursions over the years have taken me to many of the places where gulls gather. These include McDonald’s at Bridgewater where sharing a McMuffin with the silver gulls in the car park has become something of ritual when the gull territory assigned to me has included the shores of the Upper Derwent as far north as New Norfolk.
Although the gull census is concentrated on just three species, the counters are always on the look-out for environmental impacts on the wider world of birds.
The “canary in the coalmine” metaphor is an apt one for birds. In mines they die when exposed to methane. In the wider environment harmful chemicals can kill them, poisons that will eventually impact on human health.
During the gull count last year I took note of an absence of gulls at Tynwald Park in New Norfolk but I was not unduly worried. Gulls are wide-ranging and do not show up everywhere. But I did notice of an absence of a more sedentary species, masked lapwings, or plovers as they are more commonly known in Tasmania.
I duly noted the plover absence in my record and was astonished to learn later that the New Norfolk Council was embroiled in a controversy over the culling of birds in the park.
The council had sought to control feral geese and ducks after residents complained that excessive droppings posed a threat to children in a play area. But the story went global after it was revealed the geese had been poisoned. The council insisted it was not aware that the decision by one of its officers to “humanely destroy” the birds had involved pest-control contractors using chemical bait.
Although a council official later said that no native birds had been killed in the incident, the total absence of masked lapwings appeared more than a coincidence.
I am happy to report that my latest survey on June 7 found lapwings in good number at Tynwald Park. I counted more than 40 and, wider afield, the gull survey revealed the Tasmanian population of gulls was also at a healthy level.