It is a truth universally acknowledged that a garden in possession of a dog kennel must be in want of eight seagulls. Come again? Let’s start at the beginning. A few years ago we took on a rescue dog, Goofy Supertramp, who, we understood, would not be happy living indoors. We therefore built him a kennel, complete with his own shed painted in “wild thyme” and furnished with five dog beds.
Two weeks later, Goofy decided that living indoors was not only something he could tolerate, but he positively demanded it. We were therefore left with a rather large dog kennel and run that served no purpose.
Fast forward to May this year when we noticed a rather strange looking jackdaw fledgling in our garden. He was completely bald on his head and chest. Realising that this wasn’t normal, we called a wildlife rescue centre up on the north Norfolk coast, about an hour’s drive away. They suggested that we take the jackdaw to them and on seeing him they were sure that he would not survive in the wild. The baldness appears to be a genetic defect and would put the bird at risk in sunshine and rain. It was also likely to be attacked for looking different.
The wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centre, Wild Touch, is amazing. They expertly care for – and release where possible – every species you could think of and provide education to schools and other groups on wildlife care and protection. Among their collection were several gull chicks. These are rescued when they fall off the flat rooves of industrial buildings and garages where their parents have made nests. If chicks are returned to the wrong nest then they are attacked by the adults, so it’s not possible to simply put them back unless it is clear which nest they fell from. With the gulls being driven away from their natural habitats, and enticed inland with the trappings of human refuse, it’s a common problem.
After some (not much) consideration, we decided to foster eight of these gull chicks to help Wild Touch. So seven Lesser Black Back gulls and one Herring gull moved into Goofy’s kennel. At last there was a need for it.
Apart from the occasional overnighting hedgehog or woodpigeon, this was our first foray into wildlife rescue. Gull chicks are very easy to care for. If you have a wildlife rescue centre near you, I’d definitely recommend contacting them next spring to ask if they need any gull foster families. It’s a simple case of putting out food (cat food, tinned and fresh fish, etc), providing water to drink and paddle in (not too deep at first until their feathers become waterproof), and hosing down the area to keep it clean. As the aim is to release the birds into the wild, it’s best not to spend too much time with them, as tempting as that may be! Gulls who are not afraid of humans tend to be unwelcome when stealing fish and chips at the seaside.
After a couple of weeks, the gulls were growing well, taking worms and other insects from the ground, and exercising their wings a lot, so we removed the roof of the kennel so they could fly out when able. One left almost immediately, the others waited another week or so. After they have fledged, they don’t usually go very far so you’ll probably see them around on the rooves of neighbouring houses or calling out as they soar above your heads. It’s wonderful to see them flying so high and strong, no longer the clumsy, fluffy chicks they once were.
We’d know if they had difficulty finding food that day, or if they were just feeling a bit lazy, as they would return to the garden when they saw us outside with the dogs and sit next to the kennel. Very often they would bring offerings such as sticks, stones, dead newts, bits of moss, tie-wraps from a neighbouring garage, feathers. Etc. It seemed they were using these objects to barter for food. One day, two of the gulls each brought an offering of a pigeon feather while I was doing some gardening. I thanked them for the feathers and gave them some tinned sardines. That seemed like a fair trade.
Now, gulls are smart birds, and they obviously thought “if she liked those feathers enough to give us some sardines, imagine what we’ll get for loads of feathers”. An hour later, I saw them flying over the garden, seemingly carrying something large – it wasn’t unlike the scene from Harry Potter where the owls carry Harry’s broomstick into the Great Hall. I waited for them to land and approached to see what “treasure” they had brought to trade this time. Lots of feathers, still on the pigeon, which looked as though it had been dead since 2009. Nice…
As I write this, most of the gulls have left the area. A group of adult gulls flew over and they joined them, which is perfect as they will gain valuable experience from their elders. The Herring gull is not migratory, unlike the Lesser Black Backs (which can migrate as far as Africa) so she is still around and will pop in for a snack, paddle and snooze every few days. The two youngest fledglings are also still around and currently favour the kennel to the outside world, but it won’t be long before they too are just dots in the sky on their way to their own big adventures.