Tromsø's gull problems
This last week our local newspaper (topically called Nordlys= Northern lights) is full of stuff about ' the gull problem', a topic that reappears every summer in varying intensity. Fortunately I now longer get called in
to witness; this role has been very ably taken over by my colleague Rob Barrett (now also retired), who is a seabird specialist and a very gifted transmitter of science results to the general public. But it may still be of some interest to try tofigure out
what the problems are exactly and how many people mix up gull species and behaviour patterns.
The common nesting gull here in Tromsø is appropriately called the Common Gull Larus canus. They winter in the North Sea area, but arrive quite early in spring, and, especially in later years, they nest everywhere in town, maybe
especially outside the center; in gardens, on balconies , on flat roofs etc etc. In our garden one pair nested several years on top of a magpie nest 4 m up in a large willow, and this spring one enterprising gull nested in a flower bed just outside the door
of our museum (the eggs disappeared after a while). The gulls are very active and noisy; we locals feel the sound belongs to life here and would miss it when absent, but tourists are often much bothered by it (As it is light 24 hrs a day in summer, the gulls
are active also at night)
We have also two larger nesting gulls in town: Herring Gull L. argentatus and Great Black Backed Gull L. marinus (The Baltic Gull L. fuscus has almost disappeared, sadly enough). These are much more common on the outer coast,
but a substantial number also nests on flat roofs on larger buildings in town. The fourth town gull is an absolute newcomer: the normally cliff-nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla have the last few years suddenly discovered the 'artificial cliffs'
in town, and they nest now in some numbers on the window sills of larger buildings. Kittiwakes are also quite noisy, and their digestive processes produce very visible tracks on the buildings and sidewalks.
Now many people here as elsewhere think 'gulls are gulls', and they are apparently unaware that we have four different species, with quite different habits, in town. In reality there are three different problems:
- The kittiwakes are very noisy and shit a lot. But they never feed in town, they are purely sea gulls. So they are innocent sub 2 and 3
- The Common Gulls attack people in the period that the young are small. Already now my neighbouring gulls are getting less fanatic and mostly just threaten. But in the first two weeks around hatching, the parent gulls are very
fierce and even though they rarely actually hit you (as the Arctic terns do often), they still are very threatening to many people, and many, especially tourists, don't dare to pass an aggressive gull pair.
- The large gulls, and to a certain degree also the Common Gulls, badger people who eat food or ice cream outside, as many people do in summer, and they often steal the food when one is a moment less vigilant---this problem
is well known all over Europe, and probably also elsewhere. Every year the newspaper writes that this is the worst it ever was, bu I suspect that people forget from one year to the next.
So what to do? The first thing is to accept that gulls are an integral part of all seaside towns in N. Europe, and that it would be much worse if they were absent. The second is to make food less available: don't throw rests
out on the street, and most of all: don't feed the gulls. The latter is more easily said than done: at our local lake , Prestvannet, many people come 'to feed the ducks (Mallards and Tufted Ducks)', but in reality most of the food goes to the Common Gulls
, who have a sizable colony around the lake. And many tourists feed the gulls also in town, 'to get a picture opportunity'. And the gulls are fast learners: people= easy food!!
It should be possible to prevent the large gulls nesting on many of the roofs in the center of town in early spring (once the eggs are laid, the species are protected and may not be disturbed), although it will be a complicated
and time-consuming affair. The Common Gulls nest literally everywhere, but they are much less aggressive than the larger gulls in food-snatching.
The Kittiwakes form a special problem. It does not go well with this species in Norway and the numbers are in a steady decline, with the main problem probably being that the right food is not always available at the right
time, and productivity is therefore too low. But this can not be the reason why this species suddenly has started to nest in the towns, instead of on their natural sea cliffs. We do not know the reason for that, but suspect one factor may be the great increase
in the numbers of White-tailed Sea Eagles here in the last decades, since they were protected. They take a lot of young seabirds, and the disturbance their activity causes, allows also Ravens and large gulls to snatch eggs and young chicks.
So in my personal opinion, we should allow the Kittiwakes to nest in town; but then, I love gulls, and I am quite hard of hearing.
Wim Vader, Tromsø, Norway