Seagull Surge

Story by Brendan Bane/Creative Commons photo

July 23, 2013—California gulls were once the avian saviors of Utahan Mormon settlers—a flock descended on their grasshopper-plagued crops and consumed the indifferent insects, righting an ecological wrong. But because their populations are now exploding, gulls themselves may now be the plague.

The Mercury News reports the birds are damaging airplanes, defecating on people en masse and devouring the offspring of endangered birds.

By 1980 the Bay Area population of California gulls had dwindled to just 24. Now, 33 years later, the bird has passed the 50,000 mark. Together with the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, the USGS Western Ecological Research Center released a June 2013 report suggesting that gulls are either displacing or devouring the endangered snowy plover and least tern. The increasing gull population may deepen the cost of those already expensive species recovery projects.

The FAA estimates that birds inflict $718 million in aircraft damage annually, with gulls ranking most often hit. Bird-plane collisions aren’t usually noteworthy, but when mischievous gulls are sucked into engines or sensitive equipment, the price tag swells.

Scientists suspect landfills are fueling the population increase. Discarded food attracts the birds, reports the Western Ecological Research Center, bringing the gull’s most often used areas close to waste sites. Landfill managers have employed an arsenal of gull deterrents: trained falcons, alarm systems and sonic blast-emitting cannons. The gulls persist.

Population control tactics run the gamut from shotguns to whistles.

One resolution is to shoot them. The Fish and Wildlife Service is even considering issuing permission for the general public to destroy gull nests and eggs found on property. But experts disapprove of indiscriminate massacre, as they believe problem behaviors arise from one bird and are dispersed via gull-see, gull-do. By dispatching only the most aggressive and entrepreneurial of birds, the meme dies with the aggressor. Some conservationists focus on protecting threatened species by less violent means and choose instead to noisily stand guard at nesting refuges.

Until their population growth steadies or reverses, the California seagull will remain savior-turned-plague.

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