British Columbia·Creator Network

Filmmaker, conservationist swoop in to change perceptions of pizza-stealing gulls

Conservationist Connel Bradwell and filmmaker Ryan Wilkes are trying to change how we view the birds, which are often considered a nuisance.

'I think that the reputation is pretty harsh,' says conservationist Connel Bradwell

A white gull perches on top of a pole.
Conservationist Connel Bradwell and filmmaker Ryan Wilkes hope their latest CBC Creator Network video will give people a greater appreciation for gulls. (Ryan Wilkes)

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Gulls tend to be considered a nuisance, stealing french fries or even entire slices of pizza and squawking while you try to enjoy a quiet afternoon at the beach.

But conservationist Connel Bradwell and filmmaker Ryan Wilkes are trying to change how we view the birds.

"I think that the reputation is pretty harsh," Bradwell told CBC's The Early Edition. "The more we learned about them, the more interesting they became."

Bradwell and Wilkes said they observed the birds in urban settings and in nature to gain a better understanding of them.

WATCH | What's to love about gulls:

They're 'opportunistic omnivores'

Gulls, Bradwell said, are considered "opportunistic omnivores," meaning they'll eat just about anything. 

In the wild, away from urban settings, they feed on sea stars, crabs and other shellfish. They often drop shells onto rocks to crack them open and access the food inside. 

"I even saw them using the road," Bradwell said. "They would drop a shell onto the road, a car would run over the shell and they'd come in and pick up the pieces."

Anyone who's ever been to Vancouver's Granville Island has seen how the urban gulls operate: the birds dive-bomb tourists to grab a couple of fries, or swallow a slice of pizza whole. 

"Gulls are turning to foods like french fries and eating garbage because the availability of the food in the ocean is not as plentiful as it once was," Wilkes said.

Their habits say something about the environment

Gulls are a species that, based on their habits, could tell researchers and conservationists about what's going on in the broader ecosystem, Wilkes said.

He said their mere presence in urban spaces is something to note.

"They're telling us by being in these urban areas, by causing a ruckus, by being annoying, that maybe there's problems out in the ocean."

A gull.
Gulls may seem annoying, but there are pretty good reasons why they do the things they do, according to Connel Bradwell and Ryan Wilkes. (Ryan Wilkes)

For example, Wilkes said, food may not be as plentiful as it once was in shorelines, their natural habitats.

According to researcher Louise Blight, if the bird's population declines, it could signal to biologists that something "profound" is happening in the area in which they live.

They recognize screeches — and faces

There's no mistaking the call of the gull: a loud shriek, which only gets louder as they gather. Even Disney acknowledged this in their portrayal of the birds in Finding Nemo

But though it might sound obnoxious to us, Bradwell says the birds have their own unique voices, similar to humans. That shrieking call is their form of talking — something gull chicks learn primarily to identify their parents.

"It's actually very sophisticated," Bradwell said.

LISTEN | What makes gulls, a highly intelligent species, so special:

Not only do they recognize their unique calls, Bradwell said, but they also recognize human faces, similar to crows

"That made me think, 'Oh gosh, was I ever horrible to a gull? Will they remember me?'" Bradwell said with a laugh.

"I have definitely been nicer to the ones around my neighborhood now knowing that they might remember my face."

With files from The Early Edition and On The Island