Column: Silent shoreline? Common seabirds missing

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here monthly on the suburban wildlife of Oak Bay.

Landscape disturbance creates niches for imported species which then become endemic (meaning existing among a people, in a landscape which people created). That happened locally with the California quail, imported for hunting in 1860-61.

A compact bird with a feathery “top-knot” and tones brown (female) or grey streaked with white (male), quail suited the meadowland created on southern Vancouver Island as forests were thinned. They flock in groups, running and taking to the air when disturbed, the very embodiment of the adjective “flighty.”

Although they can lay up to 20 eggs twice a year, they have become a rare sight locally, even in park spaces.

Presumably those spaces are too small and don`t give these birds the privacy and cover they need. Maybe ravens, raccoons and eagles learned the few places they still congregated, and picked off the nestlings.

Maybe the same thing happened to the ring-tailed pheasant, with its bright yellow-orange body, green head and long tail, which was introduced in 1882.

Now our landscape best supports gulls and crows because these don’t mind interacting with humanity, gleaning much of their diet from our leavings. Yet the gulls too are disappearing from the seaside, and birdwatchers ask why.

The most common gull, the glaucous-winged, has decreased by almost 60 per cent since the 1980s, according to UBC’s Centre for Applied Conservation Research.

At the same time, industrial logging inland destroyed habitat for eagles and hawks, forcing these toward populated areas of the coast where they now take over gulls’ nesting sites. Gulls that used to nest in the rocky islets off Oak Bay now nest on roofs downtown.

Visiting a patient at a care home a few years ago, I met the gull who frequented the window sill of the ambulatory patients’ dining area.

This gull stood waiting for handouts, and the human residents were charmed by the arrival of a free being at lunchtime, a friendly specimen of wildlife brightening their days. To be close to wildlife is better for us than for them, however. The food which the feathered folk glean from our garbage cans is bad for their health.

Feathers are 85 per cent protein, and metabolically expensive to re-grow when gulls go through the several molts between their juvenile and adult plumage.

They need a good intake of shellfish, herring and other small fish to be healthy, but these species are dwindling due to our sports and commercial fisheries plus destruction of shoreline habitat by urban development. Gulls join our urban mallards in finding earthworms in spring wherever a spread of squelchy grass is available, but even the worms are gone during the drought of summer.

The bread which gulls find in dumpsters or snatch from the duck-feeders in parks doesn’t fit their nutritional need (nor the ducks’), and their rate of reproduction declines.

The “nurdles” of plastic they find on beaches are lethal. Add to that the entangling fishing lines drifting in the ocean, and the future even of this most common local bird looks doubtful.

Greater Victoria just would’t be itself without the familiar shriek of seagulls heard along the shoreline, yet this sound is dying out. Like all other species up and down the food chain, gulls need space and they need prey.

Perhaps we could give some measure of these back to them, by changing our own patterns of consumption and settlement.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here monthly on the suburban wildlife of Oak Bay.

 

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