Experts say seagulls should be renamed 'urban gulls'

The end of the seagull? Experts say the birds should be renamed ‘urban gulls’ as they spend more time foraging in towns and cities than at the sea

  • Researchers fitted GPS trackers to 12 birds to see where and when they foraged
  • They also monitored gulls who visited a park, school and waste centre in Bristol
  • The team found that birds matched their foraging to the times of school breaks
  • Furthermore, they only visited the waste centre at times when it was accessible
  • In the park, the birds did appear early, when worms and insects were plentiful

Scientists want to rename seagulls ‘urban gulls’ after finding they spend more time hunting food in towns and cities than on the coast.

There is not actually a single species called the seagull, according to the RSPB, which explains how the term is instead an informal way of referring to any of the species that belong to the gull family.

Anouk Spelt, a biologist at the University of Bristol, made the push for a name change on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, after a study found the birds time their foraging to match human schedules, and have figured out that school breaks are one of the best times to hunt for food.

She said: ‘You can’t really say the name ‘seagull’ any more, you just call them gulls and the ones in Bristol we’re actually trying to call ‘urban gulls’.

‘In a previous study of my group we actually found that our gulls don’t go to the sea at all and spend the majority of their time within the city.’ 

Clever seagulls time their foraging to match human schedules — and have figured out that school breaks are one of the best times to hunt for good, a study found

Anouk Spelt, a biologist at the University of Bristol, made the push for a name change on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme

The comments come after researchers from Bristol fitted GPS tracker backpacks to 12 lesser black-backed gulls to observe where they went throughout the day to forage for food. 

In addition, the team observed the number of gulls who visited three different locations across the city — which were a public park, a school and a waste centre.

The team found that the birds’ foraging patterns were closely matched to the timing of school breaks as well as the opening and closing times of the waste centre.

Whereas their activity in the public park appeared to correspond with the availability of natural food sources — such as insects and earthworms.

The findings suggest that gulls have the flexibility to adapt their foraging behaviour to best benefit from human schedules — and allow them to thrive in cities.

‘Our first day at the school, the students were excited to tell us about the gulls visiting their school at lunchtime, said paper author and biologist Anouk Spelt of the University of Bristol.

Our data showed that gulls were not only present in high numbers during lunchtime to feed on leftovers,’ she added.

The birds also appeared ‘just before the start of the school and during the first break when students had their snack.’

‘Similarly, at the waste centre the gulls were present in higher numbers on weekdays when the centre was open and trucks were unloading food waste,’ Ms Spelt said.

‘Although everybody has experienced or seen gulls stealing food from people in parks, our gulls mainly went to park first thing in the morning.’

‘This may be because earthworms and insects are present in higher numbers during these early hours.’

The team found that the birds’ foraging patterns were closely matched to the timing of school breaks as well as the opening and closing times of the waste centre

‘With this study in Bristol we have shown that gulls in cities are able to adapt their foraging schedule to make best use of food resources depending on their availability,’ said paper author and bird flight expert Shane Windsor.

‘Some gulls even used all three feeding grounds in the same day, suggesting they might track the availability to optimise their energy intake.’

‘These results highlight the behavioural flexibility of gulls and their ability to adapt to the artificial environments and time schedules of urban living.’

The full findings of the study were published in the International Journal of Avian Science.

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