Big thank you from

The herring gull thriving in our throwaway modern society

by Paul Cormacain

SOMEONE had dumped a few fish heads and fish backbones in a quiet area. There were also some vegetables lying around, so I suspect that somebody had dumped the dinner remains. The local birdlife was interested.

First on the scene was a passing gull, a big gull, a herring gull, a hungry gull. He happened to be passing, saw the fish bits and came down to look some more.

He landed half a metre away from the dinner remains and eyed it all suspiciously. No such thing as a free lunch, he thought.

The herring gull is a very successful bird. It eats almost anything and will tackle almost any kind of food, from fish offal to the young of other herring gulls. Its ability to eat most things make it a very successful breeder, and it probably is our most common gull.

This gull seems to be increasing in numbers, and the thinking is that our modern throw-away and take-away food system has benefited the gull.

Our refuge tips are a great attraction for herring gulls, and although they are not the only birds to visit the tips, they are usually the most easily seen.

The preferred nesting site for these gulls used to be lonely cliffs, but with an increase in numbers the nesting habitat is undergoing a change. Bogs and inland lakes are now being used as nesting sites in Ireland and Scotland. Stranger still, these gulls will now sometimes nest on buildings in coastal towns.

The gull inched closer to the food. It liked the idea of easy and free food, but was wary. Suppose it was a trap. Suppose someone was waiting to catch it, or shoot it; as soon as it touched the food. It kept looking around, and kept looking at the attractive morsels.

A few birds have mastered the art of opening a shellfish, and the herring gull is one of those birds. You may see it along a rocky coast, and having acquired a mussel or some such, it will fly high into the air and then drop it on to a rock. The result is a broken-shelled mussel, which is then promptly disposed of, and disappears Town the throat of the gull.

I could clearly see the stripped backbone of a fish among the dinner remains, and there did not seem to be much flesh on it. The herring gull could see it as well, suddenly dashed in and grabbed the bones, and started to swallow them. 'These bones would have been off a fish about one and a half times the size of an ordinary herring, so it was a lot of bone. The herring gull devoured the lot, albeit going slightly slower as it came to the end.

The bird looked around. There were no enemies, (we were invisible), and it was not trapped or shot. The gull grabbed a fish head and flew off a few metres. Something in the way he was acting, or moving, or looking, and suddenly other birds saw what was afoot and came to join in. They were all crows.

Rooks, hooded crows, magpies and jackdaws all congregated. "They did not go to where the food was, rather they came and perched on the ground around the eating herring gull. And they all talked!

The herring gull is a large bird, with a big strong bill, which other birds would not like to come in contact with. So the crows kept their distance, and the gull kept on eating the fish head.

He kept turning around, so that no bird could approach him without being seen and warned off.

The crows kept talking, they were discussing the big bird's diet, how he would not share, and tried to figure out how they could separate the gull from the food.

The food the gull was eating was obviously nicer than the food lying in a pile and the crows slid not go near it.

The gull kept eating, and turning. The crows kept chattering. When the gull had devoured the fish head, he flew to the 'picnic' area, grabbed another fish head and flew off.

The crows were still blethering, and did not even notice. Eventually they dispersed, and so did we.

Coming Events

Saturday 8th February - If you want to make your garden more wildlife friendly, head for Oxford Island at 2.30 and learn a thing or two. Phone 3832 2205.

Wednesday 19 February - Butterfly Conservation will hear about the marsh fritillary, at 6.30 in the Ulster Museum.

Monday 24 February - Lisburn RSPB is hosting its monthly meeting at 7.30 at Friends' School, where Dermot Hughes will talk about the Ulster Wildlife Trust.

Ulster Star