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Photo: Ellen Rykers
Photo: Ellen Rykers

ScienceFebruary 16, 2024

In defence of seagulls

Photo: Ellen Rykers
Photo: Ellen Rykers

Ellen Rykers pays tribute to a misunderstood icon of New Zealand summer.

This is an excerpt from our weekly environmental newsletter Future Proof, brought to you by AMP. Sign up here.

One summer day a few years ago, soaking up the sun at the beach, I watched as a young tarāpunga red-billed gull begged for food from its parent. The dutiful parent opened its beak and proceeded to regurgitate an entire thick-cut hot chip, still intact, onto the sand. I was both mildly grossed out and impressed. A true feat of seagull* enterprise.

I was less impressed with anti-seagull commentary from RNZ’s Saturday Morning host, Susie Ferguson, who last weekend expressed her distaste for the birds she described as scavengers.

I prefer the terms “resourceful” and “food waste heroes”. We have modified our environments so much, pushing nature out, but then get upset when one species has the chutzpah to adapt and rifle through a bit of our slobby rubbish? Yes, they may be chip thieves with sneaky one-foot balancing skills, but this is part of their beach pirate charm. Watching a red-billed gull arch its neck and scream with rage after its rival wrestled away a sandwich crust is beach-watching hilarity only surpassed by watching someone topple off a stand-up paddleboard.

As the folks at the Predator Free New Zealand Trust point out, Aotearoa is actually home to three gull species. There are the big boy karoro black-backed gulls – I’ve seen one karoro unzip a beach bag to raid a bag of crisps, and another patrolling for unattended scroggin near the top of the Tongariro crossing. Tarāpuka black-billed gulls find homes in braided rivers and half-demolished office buildings.

Their cousins, tarāpunga red-billed gulls, are your classic seaside scallywags with sick dance moves. But they have a softer side too that is pure #CoupleGoals. As part of courtship, males will feed females tasty snacks. The couple will then share all co-parenting duties equally. At the Kaikōura breeding colony – monitored every year since 1964 by scientist Jim Mills – 83% of pairs will stay loved up from one season to the next. The longest known gull relationship lasted 17 years.

Although they may seem ubiquitous, tarāpuka and tarāpunga are in trouble, with both classified as At Risk – Declining (in contrast, North Island brown kiwi are “Not Threatened”). In the case of red-billed gulls, dramatic population declines since the 1960s have been driven by introduced predators and climate change-induced shifts in krill distribution (yes, the chippie thieves still rely on natural krill as part of their diet).

Seagulls are just doing their best in a world we’ve stuffed up, and you have to admire their talent for learning how to swindle snacks out of us. They’re a quintessential part of Kiwi summer, like Frujus and bread-clip jandals. Our coastlines would be boring and bland without them.

*Some bird nerds abhor the term “seagull” because not all gulls live near the sea (see: tarāpuka). I am not one of these birdsplainers, and embrace the colloquialism.

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