How much do you know about seagulls? For a start, seagulls are not one species but many and they do not necessarily live by the sea.
If you live near a waterway, they are probably a constant in your environment, but I knew very little about their lives until I researched the silver gulls of Hobart for a conference in Split, Croatia. The aim of the conference was to examine the ways in which non-human animals enrich our culture and the ways in which humans treat them.
There are three species of gulls in Australia and silver gulls are the smallest and most prolific, after kelp and Pacific gulls. Silver gulls mate for life and lay eggs in nests on the ground lined with seaweed, roots, and plant stems. Both parents are involved in nest-building, incubating and feeding chicks.
Most gulls in Tasmania nest in large colonies on offshore islands. Hobart’s two silver gull colonies are in what we would consider precarious situations – a narrow stony embankment on one side of busy Sorell Causeway; the other on an equally narrow strip along the river at Nyrstar zinc works: a noisy, steaming, industrial environment. It seems silver gulls chose these sites because they are safe from predators – cats, dogs and humans.
There is an annual gull count in south-eastern Tasmania. Sixty volunteers spend one day a year, in all kinds of weather, counting seagulls and they have done so every year since the 1980s. The results in 2022 show a population of 12,500 silver gulls, almost 30% greater than the earliest counts. The largest breeding colonies in the world are on the islands of Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne where there are 40-50,000 pairs.
The greatest number of silver gulls around Hobart are at another causeway, South Arm Neck. Recently, a car collided with gulls sleeping on the road there at night, killing over 100 birds. Locals who came across the scene were distressed and a team from a nearby wildlife sanctuary was called to tend to, rescue and later release injured birds. At Sorell Causeway, a wire mesh fence has been erected to deter young chicks and their parents from straying onto the road.
But how do café staff and fish sellers at Sullivans Cove on Hobart’s waterfront regard seagulls? When I asked him, a man selling fish from one of the punts immediately said they were ‘part of society’, they cleaned up the waterfront and were ‘just doing a job’. He told a story about a gull with a twisted foot, curled up because a piece of fishing line was cutting into the lower part of his leg. The man saved fish scraps to give to the gull at the end of the day, explaining that his mother was also disabled, so he felt sorry for the bird.
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