I’m a lariphile. I love gulls, skuas, and their ilk. I think they’re gorgeous, intelligent, highly adaptable, and I will always have a soft spot for them in my heart. It will not likely come as a surprise to know that this is a minority view.
Gulls, skuas, giant petrels and other predatory seabirds (i.e., those that eat other birds) are often maligned, both in terms of management and in culture. They’re called flying rats, flying garburators, disgusting, and lacking in any redeeming qualities. So what? They can’t understand us, so presumably are immune to humanity’s slanders and insults. We, however, are not.
Gulls, skuas, and giant petrels are seen as horrendous things that eat cute fluffy things which we see as being “better” (in an anthropomorphic sense) than these cruel predators. Newsflash: all birds are predators. None of them can photosynthesize, so they gotta eat. Fish, krill, squid, berries, dead things… you name it. Why then do we cast aspersions upon these species, but not the puffin when it eats herring, or the albatross when it snares a flying fish? Because flying fish and herring are cute and fuzzy and easily portrayed as defenceless individuals by nature documentaries.
Take the BBC’s Planet Earth 2 series, wherein skuas are shown haranguing Chinstrap Penguins on Zavadovski Island. A friend, mostly tongue-in-cheek, asked if the skuas had any redeeming qualities. Why should their foraging mode impact our evaluation of their “worth”?
Lest we believe this is an issue for far-flung islands of the Southern Ocean, consider the plight of gulls in North America and Europe (particularly the UK). They’re seen as pests, a nuisance, and in many areas were historically subjected to extensive “control” (i.e., culling). The result? European Herring Gull is now listed as Red in the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern. I helped co-edit a special issue of the journal Waterbirds focusing on gulls, and in paper after paper we see the same thing – precipitous declines in both American Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull over the last 30 years.
On Gull Island, Witless Bay, Newfoundland, for example, there were <30 pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls when I was there in 2011-12 (compared to 115 in 2000-01). In the last 15 years, the islands in Witless Bay have lost >50% of their breeding gulls (read our paper here).
So why aren’t we doing anything about it? Gull control still takes place (though now on a smaller scale than in the 80s and 90s), but if there was “control” of a rapidly-declining albatross, the conservation world would be up in arms. Because gulls are also seemingly ubiquitous in urban environments, they’re also seen as being common (so much so that multiple species are lumped into the highly inaccurate term “seagull”).
After a kerfuffle about a debate on gulls in Aberdeen that took place in the UK House of Commons, I suggested that the following question be a highly relevant one (for conservation and policy) for wildlife management/conservation students:
When it comes to gulls in the UK, it’s a question of how does one manage a threatened species that could easily get multiple ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders)?
And this is highly relevant today, right now, because what we’re doing at the moment clearly isn’t working for the conservation of these species, or the public’s perception of them.
Just another example of how species’ ecology and behaviour influences our perception of their conservation need.