Richard Robinson

The end of the everywhere bird

What would the beach be without red-billed gulls? We may be about to find out. Two huge colonies have already gone under and the next biggest, in Kaikōura, is failing fast.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

In December 2023, Environment Canterbury’s Heath Melville counted around 3800 red-billed gulls at Kaikōura. Some birds may have been at sea feeding, but that’s still a dizzying drop—through the 1980s and early 90s, the population hovered around 15,000 to 20,000.

Heath Melville’s first memory of red-billed gulls is shooting one with his slug gun when he was about seven years old. Just for something to do on a boring Kaikōura afternoon. He’d thought he might try to bag a bunch of them, but something about the dead bird moved him: the sleek white body fully alive one second, motionless the next. Then there was the lecture from his dad—the birds were protected, he said, and there was a fine for harming them.

Not that that stopped some of the other kids at school. A common pastime was to prop up a box with a stick, place a piece of bread underneath, and wait for a gull to come along so you could trap it. Or, for a cheap thrill, you could throw crusts on the road in the hope a car would turn up at the same time as a gull.

One of Melville’s mates was a gull-killing specialist by age 12. Melville remembers him stuffing a live red-bill into another kid’s schoolbag. The bird escaped and flapped wildly around the school corridor, until the bully caught it and threw it, splat, at a window. Then he chucked the lifeless body on the classroom roof. “For him it was nothing,” says Melville. “He was like, ‘It’s dead, who cares?’”

Who does care about the red-billed gull? Not most of us.

The red-and-white squawking flurries are such a part of our coastal landscape that they’re basically beach wallpaper. If we do notice them at all, it’s that they’re a pain in the butt.

“We have this disdain for them just because they’re ever-present—or we get annoyed because we dropped our guard for 30 seconds while they raided our eggs bene,” says Melville. These days, he’s a Kaikōura-based biodiversity adviser for Environment Canterbury, and a true-blue red-bill evangelist.

To him, the gulls are much more interesting than the seals or whales that tourists flock to see. They can fly, for a start. The chicks make a whistling call he finds endearing. “It’s almost a little bit pathetic, you know?” As a forager himself, he appreciates the birds’ adaptability—their willingness to supplement their natural marine diet with paddock worms, karamū berries or cafe brunch.

And in their colonies, he likes watching the complex drama of their social and community life. “They’re a little bit catty, but I think possibly we can identify with them more than we can a lot of other native species. They’ve just got a lot of character.”

Red-billed gulls seem like they’re everywhere. Like they’ll always be here—and like getting enough food is never going to be a worry. But like so much of our native wildlife, these birds are in trouble. Two huge colonies in the north have already all but collapsed and the next biggest, in Kaikōura, is fragmenting, like a melting iceberg, and rapidly shrinking. And so are the birds themselves.

[Chapter Break]

In the early 1990s, when Melville was a slug-gun-wielding seven-year-old, Department of Conservation scientist Jim Mills had already been monitoring the colony at the Kaikōura Peninsula for almost 30 years. Wearing earmuffs for the endless squawking, and old clothes and a raincoat to protect him from raining birdshit, he was a regular fixture on the headland. He carried nets and a notebook, and at his waist was a stained leather toolbag containing callipers, pliers, a ruler and a scale. Around his neck were reading glasses, a pair of ancient binoculars, and what looked like a child’s beaded necklace—strings of bright plastic leg bands.

Every fine day from October to January, starting in 1964, Jim would spend around eight hours dancing between the close-packed nests, identifying parents, counting eggs, recording laying and hatching dates. He’d capture chicks and weigh, measure and band them with a generic metal tag, marking them as Kaikōura birds—76,285 of them over the course of the 55-year study. At the end of each season, he placed unique colour-bands around the dull brown legs of hundreds of fledging juveniles so he could follow their progress in detail over the years to come.

Jim Mills spent every summer from 1964 to 2017 at Kaikōura, counting, measuring, observing pairs, and banding chicks. Among many findings, he discovered the longest pair-bond lasted 18 years. “He’s very passionate and very effective,” says Otago gull researcher Chris Lalas.

Jim did his master’s and his doctorate on the species, and kept summering with the colony, even when he got a job heading the takahē research programme for the Wildlife Service (DOC’s predecessor).

Various students, rangers, and volunteers helped along the way—including Deb, an American who would become his wife. In 1993, Jim retired. But he kept up the gull study. Aside from three years when the Marsden Fund paid for the work, he was only able to continue thanks to Deb’s practical and financial support. She worked full time at a big US company, and spent her holidays with Jim in the noisy, stinking Kaikōura gull colonies, counting birds. “Deb financed it all, didn’t you darling?” Jim says, looking over at her fondly.

I’m talking to the couple over Zoom. He’s 83 now, and she’s 70. They’re in their home in upstate New York. It’s dark and snowy out the window over there; here, it’s scorching—one of just two New Zealand summers in the past 60 years that Jim hasn’t spent in Kaikōura.

The gulls don’t necessarily appreciate his decades of devotion—the hours spent removing their ticks, the chick Jim brought back to life with a heart massage, the chick with the broken leg he splinted and watched thrive.

“It’s funny working out in the colonies with Jim because he gets pooped on more than anybody else,” says Deb, laughing. As soon as he gets out of his car, the gulls start dive-bombing him. Because he picks up their chicks, “they think I’m a real bastard…a predator”, he says. “There’ll be people walking 30 yards ahead of us and the birds are taking no notice of them. It’s embarrassing!”

Jim is fond of the bird, in his understated old-school way—“it’s got that beautiful scarlet eye ring, it’s a very pretty bird”—but mostly, he kept coming back because of the science. The colony is the perfect laboratory: a relatively closed system where the gulls return year after year to breed and where Jim, returning also, has been able to track thousands of individuals across their entire lifespans. (They can live, he discovered, as long as 32 years.)

His reports now form one of the largest avian databases in the world. And the mountain of data Jim and his collaborators amassed season by season, decade by decade, reveal not only the birds’ biology and behaviour, but how climate and oceanic conditions allow them to thrive—or drive them to fail.

[Chapter Break]

In the autumn and early winter, red-billed gulls fan out across the country, sometimes as far as Auckland or Invercargill. In June and July, they trickle back to Kaikōura to secure a good nest spot.

Females rest on the nest for around two weeks before they lay, saving energy, while their partners forage for food. This is a high-stakes time. If she doesn’t get enough to eat, a female is likely to “divorce” her mate the following year. But keeping her fed is a huge effort for the male, and Jim thinks this is why more males die, skewing the population slightly.

(Possibly as a result of this imbalance, around five per cent of the pairs at Kaikōura are female-female. They’ll mate with males, sometimes they both lay eggs, and then the females raise the chicks together—but fewer of these chicks make it to fledging [see Just So, page 26.])

When chicks start to hatch, they face a gauntlet of threats: flooding from storm surges or king tides, stoats, ticks, cats, black-backed gulls, seven-year-olds, boy-racers. On average, just one in every 12 eggs survives to become an adult bird at two years old.

But perhaps the most intractable problem hanging over this colony is starvation. To raise their young, red bills depend on krill, a type of large plankton stacked with protein and fat, which rise to the surface in great upwellings off the Kaikōura coast.

A good krill season is not a given. To breed successfully, they need a strong influx of nutrient-rich cold water from the south each winter. And even in a boom year for krill, the red-bills need all that food brought close to shore and to the surface—unlike gannets and shags, they can’t dive, and fly a maximum of 40 kilometres to feed. Come spring, when the gulls’ eggs are hatching, northeast winds and work-ups of schooling kahawai and other large fish handle the delivery, hoisting the krill within reach of hungry red beaks.

A rush of warm water from the north at the wrong time can ruin everything—when it flows over the top of the colder water, it prevents the krill from reaching the surface. Or it can push the entire water mass offshore, krill-swarms and all, a too-far commute for the hardworking gull parents.

At such times, the colony relies on rubbish, kelp flies, fish larvae, hot chips, and earthworms from nearby parks and paddocks. The change in food supply is obvious from what the birds regurgitate when the researchers pick them up, and from their droppings: “earthworms are awful,” says Deb—slimy and stinky instead of pink, odourless krill-based poo. And while such scavenging might keep the adult gulls alive (if not thriving), it’s often not enough for a growing chick.

This summer, many gulls nested on the rock stacks beside Kaikōura’s old wharf. Jim Mills’ tracking shows that in a given season, only about half of the females even attempt to nest. He found the population is being maintained by “superbreeders”—a group of about a fifth of the breeding-age birds responsible for raising more than half of all chicks that fledge. Losing any of these key adults hits the colony hard.
When krill is not available at sea, red-bills look for whatever they can get: rubbish at the Kaikōura dump, earthworms, flies, fish hooks.

Jim has seen two “really bad years”, he says, in which not a single red-bill chick fledged.  In 1987, a warm El Niño year, there was simply not enough krill, while in 1989, the swarms were pushed out of reach by a layer of warm water. The year in between, though, 1988, saw the highest number of nests on record.

Those roller-coaster years were only the start. Since 1994, there have been more bad breeding years than good ones. In the 20 years from 1983, the total population halved. And Jim’s research also revealed the birds are getting markedly lighter and smaller over the decades—a sign, he thinks, of long-term environmental stress.

“They’re starving,” says Sabrina Luecht, a wildlife biologist and volunteer rehabilitator at Project WellBird of the Kaikōura Wildlife Centre Trust.

Of the 200 animals Luecht triages and treats each year, around a quarter are gulls. Some have been attacked by cats or dogs, or hit by cars. They have swallowed fishhooks, or have a crossbow bolt sticking out of their neck. Very often, at first glance, a bird won’t look especially sick—feathers hide a multitude of ills. But when Luecht handles it, its condition is obvious. “It is nothing but skin and bones. It is essentially a walking skeleton with
feathers.”

Some turn out to be riddled with ticks, others with the fungal disease aspergillosis. It’s all connected, she says: starving birds are more likely to be immunocompromised, to heedlessly pursue baited hooks, to wait by the road in the hope of a crust, to lose a battle with a dog. (In March 2024, 19 red-billed gulls were found dead at Kaikōura’s South Bay, seemingly killed by a dog or dogs.)

For a red-billed gull, Luecht says, the space between “catchable” and “dead” is extremely narrow. That small window is where she works: saving lives, then sending birds on where necessary to veterinarians in Christchurch. A few she nurses back to relative health and releases—giving the birds a second, third, or fourth chance to survive and breed.

“I think it’s the least we can do given that all those birds come into care because of human-related causes.”

There are certain changes we can make on land: we can quit messing with the gulls for fun, and report unwell gulls. We could also fish responsibly—which means covering bait, sinking burley fast, and if you catch a gull, not cutting it loose—the quickest, cruellest solution to a tangled line. Fishers who do that “don’t care”, says Luecht. “They think it’s just a f—ing gull, that is literally what they’re thinking, with the swear word in there. And you’re condemning that bird to death.” She urges them to instead get the bird to someone who can help.

But if the ecosystem at sea is broken, none of this will save the red-bills.

Dozens of hopefuls congregate outside Shelly Riddell’s iconic chippy Nin’s Bin.

In 2011, Jim Mills contributed data from Kaikōura to a global study dubbed ‘One-Third for the Birds’. International scientists examined long-term relationships between seabirds and their prey—krill and small fish—and found an existential threshold that holds across three oceans: when numbers of forage fish fall below around a third of their long-term maximum, the seabirds and their breeding success suffer.

In Kaikōura, over time, climate change is expected to change ocean currents and wind patterns, bringing more westerlies, fewer northeasterlies, and warmer, insipid winter seas. That will mean fewer krill for ravenous gull chicks.

Counterintuitively, it’s also possible that falling numbers of the large fish that eat krill could be decreasing the gulls’ own supply. Under the fisheries Quota Management System, fish stocks are considered “sustainable” at around 30 to 40 per cent of their original biomass. But there may be flow-on effects from that many missing fish, scientists warned in a 2018 study. For example, it could mean fewer, weaker, shorter work-ups—the feeding frenzies that help push krill to the surface, setting the table for the gulls.

Luecht considers herself an optimist, but she finds it hard to be optimistic about red-billed gulls. The Kaikōura colonies are “heading for extinction”, she says. “That is a very real outcome of their journey right now. In two to three decades, I can safely say there’s a risk of them no longer being in existence.”

Even now, the birds’ long lifespans could be masking their decline, she says. If too few babies fledge, when today’s adults die of old age in a decade or two, we might see a sudden population crash.

On top of that is the looming threat of avian influenza—the pandemic currently decimating wild bird populations around the world. Closely-packed gull colonies are particularly susceptible; in England, more than 10,000 black-headed gulls (a species very closely related to red-bills) died of the disease over just a few months in 2023. The virus recently reached mainland Antarctica, and New Zealand experts say it’s only a matter of time before a migrating bird brings it to our own shores.

“Imagine being at the shore without gulls! It would seem deeply devoid of life. And if a really quite common species can become so very threatened within the space of a couple of decades, what is that saying about the state of our environment?”

[Chapter Break]

The colony at Kaikōura was once dwarfed by two island colonies in the north. The gulls brightened the skies in their tens of thousands above the Manawatāwhi/Three Kings Islands,  north of Northland, and the Mokohinau Islands in the Hauraki Gulf. But by 2016, there were only 1763 breeding pairs at the Three Kings, and a paltry 58 on the Mokohinau. We don’t know for certain why these colonies are going under, as they haven’t been studied in any detail.

And in Kaikōura?

It’s been seven years since Jim stopped his careful annual surveys, so we’re not clear exactly how the colony is doing. But Melville and Luecht both say it appears to be splitting into smaller groups—a possible sign of trouble. Kaikōura locals might be seeing more birds in town, Luecht points out, but that doesn’t mean the gulls are abundant—just desperate.

The red-bills are such an integral part of our coastal landscape we almost don’t see them—or the fact they’re declining across most of the country. “If it was a penguin, everyone’d be interested,” says Jim Mills.

The last time Jim was in Kaikōura, in 2023, he and Deb took a walk around the peninsula. “I’d say it’s definitely declined since 2017,” he says. One reason is that the gulls here have lost a deadly ally.

When Jim got started, the Kaikōura colony was really five large colonies, spread across the bays and points of the peninsula. By the early 2000s, there were only two left. One day, Jim and Deb visited the spot they called the Sugar Colony. Two days earlier, there had been chicks squawking everywhere. Now, it was devoid of young life: no chicks, dead adults strewn about: the trademark work of feral cats.

“They could get rid of a colony of 500 overnight,” Jim says. Thankfully, he had someone to call: Mike Morrissey, the local DOC ranger in Kaikōura for 35 years.

Working with Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura, the administrative council of local iwi Ngāti Kuri, Morrissey set 100 traps along the Kaikōura peninsula and the coast. That dealt to the rats, stoats and ferrets, but for the most part, the cats waltzed straight past. There was no bait you could tempt them with that tasted better than fresh, fluffy seabird chick.

So for something like 20 years, Morrissey went out on dark nights several times a month with a spotlight and a shotgun and stalked massive feral cats along the cliffs and rock shelves, cutting the cats off before they got to the colonies. He shot cats at the dump, too.

Morrissey got the green light from the police, DOC, iwi and landowners, but it was more of a personal project than an official one: “DOC would put it through the complicator,” says Morrissey. “So I just did it.” Between the dump and the colonies and the traps, he’d bag perhaps 70 cats a year.

Every spring, like a migratory bird himself, Jim Mills would return to Kaikōura from the US. Morrissey would make sure he’d cleaned up any cat problems first. “He’s such a nice joker that if I hadn’t been out I’d feel guilty. I’d hate for him to turn up and say, ‘Oh, Mike, the cats have been in that bay.’” Then, during the breeding season, if Jim or anyone else reported signs of feline destruction, Morrissey would head out that night, and every night after that, until he’d dealt to the culprits.

“Mike saved the colonies, really,” says Jim.

But it was Jim’s kindness and commitment that made people want to help him, Morrissey says. “Having known Jim for such a long time, you really knew he appreciated what you did. He’s a humble sort of joker.”

After reports in Argentina of other gulls attacking southern right whales—ripping off skin and blubber when the whales surfaced—New Zealand whale researchers kept a close eye on the red-bills, but there was no sign of such behaviour here.

In 2017, both Jim and Deb had falls, slicing themselves on the limestone rocks. “We’re getting older,” says Deb. Getting up after each spill was not easy. When the couple next visited the colony, they saw the birds had decided to nest in the most inaccessible cliffs. Jim had spent at least three months per year, for 55 years, clambering over those rocks. It was time to stop.

He still analyses the data, writes papers and collaborates with other scientists. But he has not been able to find anyone to continue the all-important field work. “I would have been happy to hand it over,” he says. “But there was no one willing to put the time in, and then the other problem is getting money. I feel sorry for DOC, really, because they’ve got so much to do. They’re chasing their tail. And things are really falling apart.”

Morrissey no longer patrols the colonies for cats: he has moved to Blenheim, and nobody took up his mantle in the last breeding season. In a statement, DOC’s South Marlborough senior biodiversity ranger, Pat Crowe, said there are 120 kill traps across the Kaikōura Peninsula, including some dedicated cat traps. And DOC hopes to rope in a staff member to handle the night shooting in the near future.

[Chapter Break]

The red-billed gull was first recorded by an ornithologist on Cook’s second New Zealand voyage in 1773. Subsequent historical references to the bird are “perfunctory”, a 1965 study in the journal Notornis noted—“probably because it is so common”.

It’s an artefact of our own hunter-gatherer past that the human eye is drawn to the unusual, the rare. Too often, we don’t see what is right in front of us—or not properly, anyway.  Ngāti Kuri are keen to change the narrative about the bird that Māori call tarāpunga, says Brett Cowan from Te Rūnanga o Kaikōura. “They’re a taonga species and not a pest.” Humans are basically providing pop-up restaurants for the gulls, he points out. “And as an intelligent bird, it makes sense for them to get an easy meal wherever they can. So if we continue to be lazy with our waste and our leftovers, then we’re the ones that are making it problematic.”

The red-bills’ ordinariness is part of what blinds us to their plight, but it’s also an opportunity, says marine scientist Sally Carson from the University of Otago.

Otago bucks the nationwide trend of red-bill decline; down south, the species’ numbers are actually increasing, says Carson’s collaborator Chris Lalas, an independent scientist. From his home at Harwood on the Otago Peninsula, he reckons he can often see 5000 of the birds. This year, for the first time, they even roosted on his roof, polluting his water tank. “It cost a fortune to get it clean.” He doesn’t begrudge them, though. “No, no. I giggle about the gulls that have come home to roost!”

Red-billed gulls are found all around New Zealand’s coastline, from the Three Kings Islands in the north to the subantarctics in the south. There’s even one colony inland, here at Sulphur Point on Lake Rotorua. It’s now the country’s third-largest.
Red-billed gulls/tarāpunga and fairy prions flock above a school of trevally at the Mokohinau Islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

Lalas’ once-a-year head counts at breeding colonies along the Otago coast suggest the population there grew between six and 10 per cent each year between 1992 and 2011, and has been gradually ticking up since then. (It’s not that the Kaikōura birds have become scarfies, he assures me; only two of Jim’s banded gulls have ever shown up in Lalas’ counts.)

As the numbers grew, Carson started getting complaints from schools around Dunedin, asking for advice about their “gull problems”. Carson saw instead the possibility for education.

In 2022, she rallied 17 schools across Otago for a one-day citizen science project—The Great Otago Gull Count. “They could do a field trip, they could observe behaviour, they could do real science without leaving the classroom—the birds were coming to them.”

Carson and the teachers encouraged kids to identify any issues with gulls at their school and come up with their own solutions. At one Dunedin school, for instance, the students spoke to the next-door dairy owner when they realised she was dumping leftover chips on the pavement for the gulls at the end of each day. Other schools shifted their rubbish bins inside, or fitted lids on to them. Some classes decided to eat lunch indoors, or clean up the playground after morning tea and lunch.

Crucially, the Otago gulls are still getting served plenty of krill, Lalas says—the same sea changes causing problems further north have actually boosted krill numbers in the south. Cutting off their junk food supply might take out a few individual birds, but is likely to improve the population’s health overall, he says.

[Chapter Break]

A few months ago, Melville was catching up with some friends over a meal at the Slam Club in downtown Kaikōura, the sun sinking behind the mountains. Across the road, Melville noticed a couple of 10-year-olds surrounded by a swarm of red-billed gulls. One of the boys, in shorts and a mullet, stood stock-still with his hands outstretched, a pile of chips held aloft.

Next minute, the boys were walking right past the restaurant. Mullet kid held a gull tight in his cupped hands. The rest of the small flock was following behind, still hopeful for chips. Melville thought he knew where this was going, and he didn’t like it. Not much has changed since the 90s; recently, a friend’s son had gleefully shown him a viral video of a red-billed gull being deliberately run over with a lawnmower.

Red-bills share the Kaikōura peninsula with New Zealand fur seals and they, too, are struggling to find food. Nearly 1000 seals have starved to death on this coast since September 2023—another indication that all is not well in our oceans.

Melville reluctantly put down his drink and went out to confront the kids on the street. He put on his best teacher voice: “What have you got there, boys?”

“He’s eating our chips!” mullet kid whined. The bird nipped his fingers while the other boy poked a chip at it.

“That’s because he’s hungry,” Melville said. “They’re actually declining. Yeah, they’re not doing too well. They need all the help they can get.” He explained the birds lived on the Kaikōura peninsula, that they bred here, belonged here, and the kids seemed vaguely interested. With no further prompting, mullet boy opened his hands—and the gull fluttered free into the dusk.

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