The gull is the official state bird of Utah, because gulls saved early settlers’ crops by devouring hordes of crickets. In Victoria, we know all about the dietary comings — and goings — of these birds, and it would be an understatement to say we take a different view of their merits.
This has been one of the loveliest summers the capital region has ever seen. July was the sunniest month since records began; tourism numbers are up and local businesses are prospering. There is only one blot on the horizon. Thousands of voracious, raucous seagulls have taken up residence in the city centre.
Apparently a recovery in the bald eagle population is responsible. Gulls have traditionally nested on small islands along the Oak Bay waterfront. But as eagle numbers expand, these sites have become prime hunting grounds.
So most of the gulls are now living a refugee existence, perched atop hotels and apartment buildings. And along with their offspring, they’re painting the town white.
This is scarcely a new problem. Any oceanfront community has its share of these birds. They were here first, and we learn to live with them.
But this summer has been different. Gulls coming ashore to forage or shelter from storms is one thing. Converting the city into a rookery is another matter entirely.
Car roofs, sidewalks and store awnings are plastered in droppings. Eating outdoors has become risky, downtown window-shopping an adventure.
There are health implications — gulls are host to several communicable diseases. There are also financial consequences. Apartment roofs subjected to corrosive gull droppings have a much shorter lifespan. Exposed metal surfaces and electrical fittings are especially vulnerable.
What should be done? Wholesale eradication of nests is probably not possible. As a migratory species, gulls are protected under both provincial legislation and federal treaties.
While permission might be given for a more limited measure, such as oiling some of the eggs to prevent them hatching, it’s unlikely this would solve the problem.
Glaucous-winged gulls have a life expectancy between seven and 10 years, and some survive much longer. To produce a lasting effect, any such program would have to run for at least three to five years.
It’s true these birds are not an endangered species. Reducing the size of a local population would pose no broader threat to their survival.
But unless things get entirely out of hand, it’s hard to imagine such a controversial step being taken.
As an interim expedient, Victoria city council recently banned the feeding of gulls, but this has limited, if any, long-term value. The birds are more than capable of fending for themselves.
There is perhaps a more aggressive option that might work. Wire netting could be placed over rooftops to prevent birds from nesting there. The process is time-consuming and expensive, though it has been used in other parts of the world.
Yet this solution would only be successful if adopted on a large scale. And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of potential nesting sites that gulls can use downtown.
It would require a major co-operative effort by local government, business owners and apartment managers to take on such a task. To date, there are no signs of that happening.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, there is no solution in sight, at least for now. Gulls have joined the growing list of intrusive species — deer, rabbits, squirrels — that compassion prevents us from culling.
It’s true there is a fuzzy line here. If the birds try our patience too far, they could yet end up as Public Enemy No. 1.
But for the present, it does appear we’re stuck with them.
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