Hundreds of rare New Zealand seagulls take over earthquake-damaged building

A colony of black-billed gulls nesting in an earthquake-ravaged building in New Zealand are either a symbol of hope or a nasty nuisance, depending on who you ask.

Once on the brink of extinction, the birds have shown promising signs of recovery in recent years, but are still under threat. And now there are hundreds of them in an empty Christchurch building, delaying the construction of a new cathedral and annoying their neighbours. 

“Some people have really come in and embraced them … because they’ve never seen these birds before or never actually realized that they existed, and they’ve used this opportunity to educate themselves or to educate their friends,” Vanessa Mander, a ranger at New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

“There are also the people that live around the colony or working around the colony that may think that this is not the greatest idea for them, because the colony does produce some smells that are really unpleasant for a lot of people. So there are two sides to every story.”

It’s possible the gulls are attracted to the site because of all the water and rubble, says the New Zealand Department of Conservation. (Michael Hayward/New Zealand Department of Conservation)

The black-billed gulls, called tarāpuka in Maori, are only found in New Zealand. They first showed up at the partially demolished office block in central Christchurch at the tail-end of 2019 to nest, and they have now returned a second season.

Mander estimates there are about 300 gulls making their nests there now, though she says some of them are the more common red-billed seagulls mixed in with the population.

“We were all a little bit surprised,” she said. “There’s no real precedent for these birds breeding in man-made structures, let alone in the middle of, you know, arguably New Zealand’s second largest city.”

Mander says the nesting season could be over by March — unless some of the birds lose their eggs and lay more. (Michael Hayward/Department of Conservation)

The birds usually nest on the braided riverbeds of Canterbury and Southland, which Mander describes as “wide and meandering” bodies of water peppered with gravel islands.

There’s no way to be sure why the gulls chose the demolished remnants of a former PricewaterhouseCoopers building as their new nesting site. But she noted the area contains plenty of rubble and water. 

“From a bird’s eye view, it probably looked a little bit similar to what they were used to as a proper breeding site,” she said.

A protected species 

Their arrival is, in some ways, a welcome sighting of a species under threat.

Mander says the bird’s populations have dropped more than 80 per cent over 30 years due to habitat loss, predators and human disturbance.

New Zealand lists the tarāpuka as “nationally critical” — the country’s highest classification before “extinct.” The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies them as “near threatened.”

But the creatures are not getting a warm welcome on Armagh Street, where their presence has delayed the construction of a new cathedral — a welcome replacement for the rubble-filled eyesore there now. 

Under New Zealand’s Wildlife Protection Act, it’s illegal to disturb the birds once they start nesting. Anyone who does can face imprisonment or a fine of up to $100,000 NZD (around $91,000 Cdn). 

Bink Bowler, owner of the nearby Bell Cafe, told the Guardian the gulls are harassing his customers, stealing their food, and breaking his glassware.

“They scare off people,” he said. “It’s become a big problem.”

Vanessa Mander is a ranger with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. (Mel White/New Zealand Department of Conservation)

Mander says people have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of protecting the birds because, at a glance, they appear very much like any other species of seagull. 

But these gulls, she said, need to be protected. 

“We can’t disturb the birds. We can’t move the birds on. We can’t discourage them from being there once they’ve started nesting,” she said.

“We really just have to play the waiting game, and wait for them to see out their breeding season … and then construction can begin.”

The season can start as early August and finish as late as March, she said, though she noted the birds don’t all lay their eggs at the same time. And if a bird loses its eggs, it may lay more. 

Once they finally do clear out, she suggests the building’s owners — Carter Group and the Catholic Church — place netting around the site and pump out the water to discourage their return.

“We really want these birds to move to a more natural spot in the future because we think that those colonies will have a better chance,” Mander said.

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