Opinion: Are sea gulls a friend or foe in La Jolla?
Opinion / Guest Commentary / Our Readers Write:
This year seems to have more gulls than the last. I started noticing them 24/7, either by seeing or hearing them. It’s obvious many gulls have called La Jolla “home.” I called the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO) as they were quoted once in an article about gulls: bit.ly/gullwatching
I spoke with SFBBO Waterbird Program Director Dr. Max Tarjan — she said the first thing to do was to identify what kind of gull I was seeing, and that was determined to be the Western Gull, which lives from Washington state to Baja. In SF Bay, they incubate eggs in mid-May, and you can observe hatching in La Jolla in June and July. Incubation lasts 30 days, and then chicks can fly at 6-7 weeks. What we see in La Jolla — the gray gulls chirping, mostly on street corners or roofs — are the young chicks.
Sea gulls are colonial breeders; they are attracted to create their nests near where other gulls have nests because having close neighbors helps protect eggs and chicks from predators like raccoons and foxes. While nesting in a colony helps protect against mammals, it comes with a risk of neighboring gulls seeing the chicks as a tempting snack.
Gulls will eat anything, including the chicks of other sea gulls. Dr. Tarjan said cannibalism is more common in the animal kingdom than we think. I witnessed a La Jolla adult gull attacking a gray young gull while others swarmed around the activity. The gray gull got away. But not all are so lucky, both chicks and eggs are eaten by adult gulls who aren’t their parents.
Another thing about gulls is they often live near the California sea lions as they’ll scavenge sea lion pups that have died of natural causes. This is part of nature.
What isn’t part of nature is the feeding of human food to gulls. Dr. Tarjan said this abundance of extra food causes artificial increases in gull populations. Gulls learn that humans will provide food, so they nest around this goldmine of food supply. The No. 1 thing humans can do for gulls is NOT to feed them. They will need to find natural ways of eating, and yes, that includes eating their own. Human food is also not nutritionally good for gulls.
After walking the beach the other day, I saw a young gull try to swallow a plastic sandwich bag. The young gull thinks it’s a food source. This is bad in several ways. It’s litter. It damages birds. It creates a false sense of food supply. Don’t feed birds, don’t litter.
So what if you have gulls on your roof and you don’t want them there? Dr. Tarjan shared that spikes and wires can deter nesting. Put these up in February/March so that when nesting season comes, the birds will skip your roof. The Hotel Del Coronado is known to hire a hawk to help patrol the grounds during restaurant hours.
If you think you can take the gulls into your own hands, think again. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This is a federal law that requires a permit from Fish and Wildlife in order to harass or touch the adults, eggs, nests, or young chicks. While you are allowed to alter your roof to discourage nesting before the start of the breeding season, be sure to avoid disturbing the nests, eggs, and chicks during breeding season (which in La Jolla, seems to be May-September). Basically whenever you see a young gray chick, it’s off limits.
Dr. Tarjan said she understands the challenges of human life and bird life co-existing, but it’s really a lucky thing to be witnessing nature so closely. In fact, if you see a gull with a colored or metal band around its leg, the bird observatory would love to know the details of the bands (numbers, colors, text, when and where) as they collect information on migratory patterns. The best way to report bird bands is to use this site: pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/bblretrv/
But if you’ve just had it with the gulls around you, put up spikes on your roof next February/March.
— Tina Mertel is a La Jolla resident who said this article is a result of listening to fellow homeowners complain of sea gull noise and poop: “And having witnessed several sea gull incidents, I thought to offer an educational piece to La Jolla Light readers.”
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