Hoards of wandering gulls are causing a flap at a mall parking lot, hundreds of kilometres from any ocean.
Dozens of the juvenile birds, unable to fly, are wandering outside Parkwood Place in downtown Prince George, B.C., as adult birds squawk and swoop overhead.
Aside from the noise and the poop, there have also been collisions between driving shoppers and the birds as they wander into traffic, overwhelming a local wildlife rescue.
“I’ve had everything from broken wings, broken legs to dehydration and starvation,” said Dayna Slater of Good Caws Crow Rescue Society who is taking in the injured animals.
Slater estimated she’s had up to 40 birds brought to her over the past week.
“Some are dead on arrival.”
The ‘McDonald’s gull’
Jack Bowling, longtime birder and member of the Prince George Naturalists, identified the birds as ring-billed gulls, similar to those seen on the coast, but more likely to be found inland.
He said they naturally nest in sand or gravel bars in lakes and rivers but also enjoy the flat roofs and food supply offered by malls like Parkwood, earning them the nickname “McDonald’s gulls.”
Bowling said although colonies of the gulls have been spotted in Prince George for roughly the last two decades, the phenomenon of them nesting in the heart of the city is relatively new.
“We figured they have been there for a few years now but we’ve never had any concrete evidence they’ve been breeding,” he said.
“But this year, looks like they were successful.”
A social species
Bowling said the gulls nest in secure environments like those offered by the mall roof and, come spring, the juveniles start to learn to walk on their own.
About five weeks after hatching, they build enough feather mass to launch themselves into the air and glide to the ground but are unable to cover any distance or gain height, so after landing they are forced to walk around until they learn to fly, usually a week or two later.
Bowling noted the adults watch over the young ones until they are able to fend for themselves, praising them for their intelligence and social nature.
“Just leave them alone,” he advised to people wondering what to do about the birds.
“They’ll be able to fly fairly soon and they’ll be out of people’s way.”
It’s possible not everyone is taking that advice. Several people in the community have reported seeing drivers deliberately run into the gulls, and concerns have also been raised about whether maintenance crews are removing the birds from the roof, though no evidence has been produced.
In a statement to CBC News, the mall’s management company says it has no plans to forcibly remove or relocate the birds out of respect “for their place in the natural ecosystem.”
And even if they wanted to move them, they would have to take special steps to do so. All gulls are protected by Canada’s Migratory Birds Convention Act, a fact confirmed in B.C. provincial court in 2019 when a Vancouver man narrowly avoided major fines of up to $300,000 for destroying a nest on an apartment, pleading ignorance of the law.
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment could not confirm whether conservation officers had received any complaints about animal cruelty toward gulls in Prince George, but did note that anyone who wants to remove them would have to apply for a special permit from the Canadian Wildlife Service.
A humane solution
That’s a fact fellow birder Steve Smith made sure his city knew last year when gulls started nesting on the roof of an arena in Quesnel, about 100 kilometers south of Prince George, causing similar problems.
After helping deliver some of the fledglings who had thrown themselves off the roof to a local rescue, he talked to city staff about the need to find a humane way to relocate the birds if they didn’t want the problem to reoccur.
The solution they found was a product that plays a recording of a gull in distress in order to dissuade them from nesting, which was successfully employed this year to shoo the birds away to an abandoned mall elsewhere in the city.
Like Bowling, Smith is enthusiastic about the birds which many view as a pest, pointing out the only reason they are in cities is because of humans altering and littering the landscape with garbage.
“We make the mess, right?” he said.
“They clean up after us.”