Seagulls – beautiful yet wild, mischievous yet fierce, aggressive yet comical, omnipresent yet barely noticed by humans. And when we do notice them it’s normally for the wrong reasons – stealing food, dive-bombing anyone who gets too close to their young, or generally squabbling amongst themselves and making a racket. In short, being a nuisance, one we could do without.
However, while their absence may make our days at the beach more peaceful, their link in the ecological food chain is irreplaceable. They act as invaluable vacuum cleaners for the environment, both on land and at sea – they clean beaches by scavenging for carrion and offal but, being opportunistic feeders, they also eat rats and other small pests. Without them, we would be knee deep in dead fish and other garbage.
Sadly, their numbers are not as great as we perceive them to be. Many are being wiped out by oil spills, a slow, painful way for them to die.
Oil in the feathers mat them and expose the seagull to temperatures and weather conditions that can be fatal. They also lose their natural buoyancy from air pockets created by proper feather alignment, and they can sink and drown in polluted waters. But the tragedy doesn’t stop there. An area subjected to an oil spill becomes uninhabitable for the gulls as food supplies are gradually killed off from the toxic poisons, and oil coating nesting areas destroys critical habitat. If birds are already nesting at the time of the pollution, oil that coats the eggs will suffocate the unhatched chicks, decimating the birds’ population.
If eggs have not been laid but female adults ingest the oil, the pollution can cause thinner shells that are more subject to being crushed and causing malformed chicks that will not survive. Over time, small amounts of oil in the birds’ ecosystem can be absorbed into food supplies, gradually building to deadly concentrations in birds that eat that food, whether it is plant life, insects, fish or other food sources.
The seagull, like any species on earth, forms an indispensable link in a chain that binds us all together. And a chain is, after all, only as strong as its weakest link. But, remove that link completely, and the entire becomes chain is useless. So, the next time a seagull snatches a sandwich from your fingers, try and remember that he is just as important as any other creature on our blue planet.
Conservation can be a heavy topic so, to lift your spirits, click on the link below and listen to a 1960’s folk song about an ‘oilsome seagull’ by a South African duo, Des and Dawn Lindberg: