Nature Diary

Seagull Survey (Part II)

The continuing saga of Romulus and Remus, combined with further observations on the seagull colony on Isla Perdiguera.

This is the second article in a series of ten. If you haven’t already read it, start with the first article!

For the full story of Roxanne’s hand-reared gulls and her study of the yellow-legged seagull colony on Isla Perdiguera, buy her book, Two Gulls and a Girl.

The date is April 17th and all over Isla Perdiguera eggs are hatching. I have a map marking 65 of the nests, but there are lots more – there are some parts of the island where I haven’t been for weeks – and every time I go ashore I find some nests that I have overlooked. There are still very few nests that have hatched compared to the ones that haven’t. I have a collection of eggshells from the chicks that have hatched, with the numbers of the nests written on them. They are all slightly different colours, with different patterns of spots and blotches, but the chicks are all the same colour with only a slight variation in the pattern of their spots.

The incubation period of N1 (the first nest that I found) was 28 days. I watched this nest very closely. On March 9th it had one egg. The next day it had two, and on the third day it had three. 28 days was the time from when the first egg was laid to when the first one hatched. This is interesting because the websites all say that the incubation period is 24 to 27 days. I wasn’t able to time the incubation at any other nests as I don’t have exact dates for when their eggs were laid. They nearly all have three eggs. N11 has only two, but I think that the mother may have died. The eggs are always warm, but they are in the sun. They haven’t hatched yet and I think they are overdue.

When the chicks hatch it is very hard to find them after they are more than a day old. The newborn chicks are helpless, but once they are a day old they can shuffle into the bushes, on their tummies, and when they are two days old they can run and hide in the bushes. The eggs in N7 were the first eggs in my survey to begin hatching, but at first we thought that something had attacked the nest and eaten the eggs. There was only one egg left but there was an eggshell lying beside the nest and it was surrounded by dead black beetles. We couldn’t work out what had happened.

Next day when we went ashore in the morning there was a chick there instead of the egg, and there were two other chicks nearby in the bush. Obviously they had been hiding there the previous day and we had overlooked them! (We still don’t know why the beetles were there.)

N7 is the nest that Romulus came from. He was the chick that was still in the egg the day before. We took him because he was the smallest. We decided that he would not stand a chance in the nest. He would starve. Remus, on the other hand, would probably be the big boy in his nest and bully the others, because he was the first to hatch in his nest (N9). At the time we thought that it was simply a matter of the first chick out getting a head start, but it seems that this is not the only factor. It is interesting to see the difference between Romulus and Remus. Romulus being the eldest by two days we thought that he would be learning to feed himself first and that Remus would copy him. But no, it was Remus – the oldest of his brood – who first grew out of syringes and forced feeding and started eating by himself. It was he who first began to try to jump out of the box they live in (so we had to buy a new, bigger box). The fact that he ate the pencil is just typical. Romulus would never have eaten it. He had not learnt how to eat by himself. Romulus – the youngest in his brood – sits in the corner of the box looking helpless. Remus is always the clever, mischievous one.

Of course, after he ate the pencil we all thought that Remus would die. We were very sad that night, but in the morning Remus was as full of life as ever, squeaking away in his usual way. He definitely didn’t seem to know that there was a pencil inside him.

Whenever we go to the island I always make a trip around my nests to check on as many as possible. It would take all day to check over the whole island, and I usually only have a few hours, so I have a route which I always follow. Whenever we leave the route and explore other parts of the island I always find more nests. Wherever we go all the seagulls in the vicinity fly up and start yelling. (There are always birds, sitting on high rocks or the walls of the ruined buildings, which appear to be on look-out duty. As we approach these look-outs begin to chatter nervously, and when we get close they fly up screaming and alert the whole colony. Roxanne thinks that they are immature gulls, in their third year. I believe that they are parents – probably males – from nearby nests. When there is no sentinel nearby then the gull on nest duty will fly up, from time to time, and circle the area above the nest. JDS)

We are always careful to not stay near the nests for very long, because the mother must come back and sit on her eggs or they will die. When they are forming in the eggs and when they are young the chicks must be kept warm. But not too warm either. They mustn’t sit around in the hot sun. If the mother and father are kept away from the eggs, or if they become ill and die, then the chicks will die. Either they will die of hunger or else they will get too cold in the wind or too hot in the sun. The egg mustn’t go above a certain temperature, and it mustn’t be below a certain temperature for more than 20 minutes.

The behaviour of the parent birds is different according to the contents of the nest. If it is eggs then the parents circle around above your head anxiously, and they make a scolding chattering noise. There are always crowds of birds in the air, making a lot of noise, but you can always tell which ones are the parents. If the egg is hatching they might dive bomb you a little. But if there are chicks the parents scream and flap their wings and dive bomb you angrily, again and again. You hear the rush of air in the birds’ wings and the feet of the gull are inches above your head! As the bird bombs you it makes a quite frightening call. (This call is quite unlike any other seagull noise. It is the howl of an attacker. JDS)

You can see the fierce anger in the bird’s eyes. Sometimes I have actually been hit, and it hurts quite a lot! Usually one bird is more keen to dive bomb than the other. I suppose it is the father. Sometimes the two birds collide above the nest, and then they get cross with each other, and sometimes they get angry with other birds circling near by. They are clearly under a lot of stress.

Meanwhile the chicks are usually trying to stay absolutely still in the bushes near to the nest, but sometimes they run. Once when we were doing my usual lap around the island I was checking the eggs in N62 to see if they were warm (I just touch them quickly without turning the eggs or moving them at all, and I look closely to see if they are beginning to crack). I was doing this when something caught my eye. The thing that had attracted my attention was a huge, fluffy chick which was running fast down the hillside! It was bigger than Romulus and Remus, and we had thought they were amongst the oldest nests on the island. I dropped my collecting bags and map and ran down the hill after the chick. It is not a good idea to do this unless you are absolutely sure that you can catch it, because it is getting chased further and further from its nest. I did catch it, in the grasses at the foot of the slope. It was enormous. It was at least a week older than Romulus and Remus. It’s wings were long and it had feathers sprouting there, whereas our two still had only fluff on their wings.

As I held the chick up to be photographed it sicked up the contents of its crop. (I suspect that it was simply so frightened that it threw up, but it is possible that this might be a defence mechanism. Perhaps a predator would make a grab for the food – and while it did so the chick might manage to run and hide. JDS) It sicked up a big lump of stuff. We took this away to analyse it and when we got home we found that it was a piece of beef steak!
Daddy said, “His mum’s been hanging out at a restaurant!”
I cut the piece of beef into little bits and fed it to Romulus and Remus. It was the first solid food they had ever seen and they ate it eagerly!

Until Remus ate the pencil we had thought that the chicks could only manage mashed up food, dripping off the end off the syringe. They could not pick up cat food from the ground. I suppose it is too soft. They need things which are firmer. After the birds ate the beef so happily we decided to feed them on solid fish. They had always declined to eat tinned sardines, and so we bought several packets of frozen whitebait. It would be much easier for us if they would eat tinned food, because we do not have a fridge. Sometimes I manage to catch fish for the birds, but it is hard to catch fish which are small enough. When I catch bigger ones we have to fillet them and there is a lot of waste.

By the 19th of April Romulus was beginning to get little feathers on his wings. At first there were only stubby quills, but then the quills got longer and there were little tufts sticking out of them. As soon as the quills began to appear Romulus began to flap his wings, as if he was trying to fly!

Although Romulus is the more developed of the two birds his little step-brother, Remus, is now getting to be bigger.
When they were born the chicks both weighed 50 grammes.
On 6th April, at four days of age, Remus weighed 75g. Romulus, who is two days older, weighed 125g.
On the 11th both birds weighed 200g.
On the 12th they weighed 240g.
On the 15th they both weighed 325g.
On the 17th they both weighed 400g.
But on the 20th Remus weighed 600g and Romulus only 510g.

Romulus has never made much noise. He was born in a nest and perhaps because of that he knows that he has to keep quiet. He cheeps when he sees me and wants to be fed. He cheeps when he is too cold or too hot, and he cheeps if somebody picks him up (which he doesn’t like). That probably sounds like quite a lot of cheeping, but we don’t even notice it, and that is because of Remus. Remus does not know about keeping quiet. His mummy never had the chance to tell him. (Note: Remus was cheeping madly and loudly before he even came out of the egg. We have only ever come across one other cheeping egg, so it may be that his noisy behaviour has nothing to do with the lack of parental control. JDS)

Remus sounds exactly like a baby’s squeaky toy! For the first three weeks of his life he cheeped almost non-stop. He even used to tweet while he had a mouthful of food! He even squeaked while he was asleep! I suppose he must have stopped cheeping during the middle of the night, but I was never awake to hear if this was true! Even now, Remus still tweets for most of the day. Every now and then Mummy says, “Do shut up, Remus.” But he ignores her.
“Don’t worry, Mummy. Soon they will grow up and be big birds, and big birds don’t tweet.”
“Soon they’ll learn to fly,” my sister added.
“Yes, ” said Mummy, “And then they will s— all over the washing.”

Mummy assumes that when they can fly the birds will fly away. My sister did not tell her what we read on the website. There it says that immature gulls stay with their parents for four years. I don’t think that the birds will stay with us for that long, but Xoë does. She always looks on the bright side. (!!! JDS)

For the full story of Roxanne’s hand-reared gulls and her study of the yellow-legged seagull colony on Isla Perdiguera, buy her book, Two Gulls and a Girl.

6 Comments

  1. What a relief! (though I had a feeling Remus would be O.K.) I suppose that being carrion-eating birds, as well as fish, that his gastric juices could cope with the pencil – good job they’re not made of lead anymore.
    About the chicks noisiness, or rather the lack of it in the nest, are ground-nesting birds generally quieter than tree-nesting species when the nest is unguarded?

    1. Jill SPAIN  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Hi Lisa

      Gull chicks are probably entirely silent when Mum is sitting on them, but once they become mobile they can be very noisy. We can often hear the bigger ones from the boat, anchored off the island. However, when we go ashore the adult birds give their hue and cry (generally beginning to complain when we are about 50 – 100 yards distant) and this evidently gives the youngsters the signal to keep quiet and hide. The situation is somewhat different from that of tree nesting birds. Whether they are wrens or sparrowhawks such nestlings are often left unattended, as you know, but gull chicks are never left to fend for themselves. The nest is constantly guarded. When danger threatens, the parents guard their young from the air.

      Of course, the colony as a whole is always very noisy and one tends to imagine that the birds are all just yelling their heads off about nothing in particular. This is not the case – but I will be pre-empting Roxanne if I say much more. We have been studying this quite a bit lately and I know that she is going to write something about it.

  2. Hi one of my classmates stoll an egg from a gulls nest in western australia he was going to smash it but i said he must not and took it with out him knowing and i was wondering how to look after it because i want it to live . I do live near a beach. Anyway i was wondering what they eat and what temperature i need to keep the egg i stole it yesterday from that mean boy. I just want it to survive can you pleeeaase help me?

    The egg is still warm and i can feel the chick inside moving. So thankfully it is still alive.

    1. Jill SPAIN  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Hullo Shakirra,

      The best place to keep the egg warm would be inside your bra – or inside your Mum’s bra! Body temperature is exactly the right heat. The other thing you might try is putting it under a light bulb, but the light needs to stay on all night and all day, and you would need to have a thermometer to make sure that it stayed at the right temperature. Also, you need to keep the egg from drying out and, depending on its age, you might need to turn it.
      It’s all pretty complicated!
      The egg that Roxanne took was already hatching, so we didn’t have this problem.

      Jill and Roxanne

  3. I have a seagull that has made a nest on my yacht. It is attacking us making it impossible to get on board. I really need to get on board and do some maintenance, and I can imagine what a terrible mess they are making, do you have any suggestions? How long are the chicks likely to hang around if they are hatched? We couldnt get close enough to see.

    1. Jill SPAIN  (Mollymawk crew) 

      Are you serious??? I never heard of a seagull nesting on a boat!

      Jill

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