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Seabirds in the City

The North East of England is an important location for research on urban kittiwakes. The black-legged kittiwake is a sea-faring species of gull that returns to the coast to breed between March and August after a winter out at sea. Every year approximately 1900 pairs of breeding kittiwakes can be found along the River Tyne. Kittiwakes normally nest on coastal cliff ledges but have become a familiar sight and sound at NewcastleGateshead Quayside, where they have made use of window ledges, drainpipes, and road infrastructure to become the world’s furthest inland colony of kittiwakes.

Photo credit: Alan Hewitt, Wildlife Photographer

Kittiwakes have a long history along the Tyne where they have been present since the 1940s. But while kittiwakes have long made use of manmade structures, the growth of urban kittiwake colonies across Northern Europe raises important social and scientific questions. This includes whether kittiwake breeding and feeding behaviours are changing – and what impact climate change might be having – and vital questions about the future role of cities in supporting breeding birds.

These questions are crucial at a time when seabird numbers are declining globally. Kittiwakes are listed as vulnerable owing to significant and ongoing declines in their overall numbers. Kittiwakes are known to be affected by overfishing, warming oceans and severe weather events that are growing in intensity and frequency with climate change. While the need to support breeding birds is clear, and biodiversity loss and climate change are high on public agendas, kittiwakes are not always easy to live with.

Research led by Dr Helen F. Wilson at Durham University looks at how cities are adapting to accommodate urban colonies of kittiwakes, how people learn to coexist with urban wildlife, and what changes to planning and policy are needed to address some of the issues that have seen urban kittiwakes rise to prominence as sources of contestation. Helen is working in collaboration with Dr Tone K. Reiertsen at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø where breeding pairs of kittiwakes have only recently arrived. Tone is a scientist who examines the impact of climate change and human activities on seabird demography and population dynamics.     

Photo credit: Alan Hewitt, Wildlife Photographer

    The research is the focus of a film documentary, Seabirds in the City, developed in collaboration with wildlife photographer Alan Hewitt and filmmaker Kaleel Zibe with support from the Economic and Social Research Council, UK. The documentary asks what can be learnt from the North East of England as urban kittiwake colonies grow across Northern Europe. It explores wider questions about seabird decline, climate change and urban belonging, and examines how the kittiwake has become a regional icon that is revered and disliked in equal measure. The documentary is filmed in the UK and Norway and features interviews with local councils, wildlife organisations, marine biologists and a range of people who live with or work alongside kittiwakes, including cultural institutions such as BALTIC, and boat skippers along the North East coast.

A public event on Making Seabirds in the City will take place later this month. For more information on the documentary visit: seabirdsinthecity.com

The research also featured in Ballad of a Changing World, which is a show about adaptation by Maja Bugge and Sarah Nicolls. Through music and interviews with Tone K. Reiertsen in Tromsø, Norway, and Helen F. Wilson in Newcastle, UK, the show looks at kittiwakes on the move and how our oceans and cities are changing. Ballad had its UK premiere at Cheltenham Music Festival, as a co-commission with Arctic Arts Festival in Norway.

You can watch the trailer here:

Written by Dr Helen F. Wilson, Durham University