Rare gull provides sad warning about the changing Arctic

Every time an ivory gull visits the territory, things end badly. So, when one of Canada’s rarest birds showed up near Johnson’s Crossing…

Every time an ivory gull visits the territory, things end badly.

So, when one of Canada’s rarest birds showed up near Johnson’s Crossing on January 1st, things didn’t look promising.

There are only about 2,400 ivory gulls that breed in Canada’s Arctic, and they’re not supposed to leave.

“There’s six times more polar bears in the Canadian Arctic than there are these birds,” said Environment wildlife viewing biologist Bruce Bennett on Tuesday.

“It’s an extremely rare thing to see.”

The gulls’ closest link is to polar bears, he added.

Like their hefty compatriots, ivory gulls exist on ice sheets, and in the winter follow open leads, feeding on small fish like Arctic cod and crustaceans.

Unfortunately cod and crustaceans were in short supply in the Teslin River, where this gull was wintering.

“Sometimes juvenile birds end up in strange places,” said Bennett, noting that this was the fourth ivory gull reported in the territory. A fifth was seen in Atlin in 1987.

The first two Yukon sightings were in the ‘70s on the Arctic coast.

Then in ‘99 another was seen near Tagish.

None survived. And both the Atlin and Tagish sightings were in November.

It’s particularly strange that the latest gull turned up so far south in January.

“It would have been pretty inhospitable for (this gull) to travel down in the winter with no open water,” said Bennett, who thinks the bird hitchhiked south with a bunch of swans in the fall.

“The swans probably stomped on the ground while they were feeding and kicked up crustaceans.”

But when the swans flew south, the gull began to starve, he said.

“It likely died of dehydration. It wasn’t getting enough salt from its food.”

Bennett tried to blow apart the bird’s feathers, to check for signs of emaciation. But he couldn’t do it.

“It’s like a penguin,” he said.

“The feathers are incredibly dense.”

And when Bennett tried to poke his finger through them, they all started to break.

Shane Parker first spotted the gull on the side of the highway on New Year’s Day.

It was alive, but its legs were stuck out behind it, said Bennett.

It didn’t look like it had flown into anything, and there was no sign it had been attacked by other birds.

Parker picked up the gull, but by the time he reached Marsh Lake it had died.

“There wasn’t much he could do at that point, it was too far gone,” said Bennett.

Canada’s ivory gull populations have declined by 80 per cent, according to Environment Canada reports.

First Nations say the decline has occurred in the last 20 years, said Bennett, who blames it on an increasing loss of sea ice.

“I don’t think it’s a major human impact, other than the fact it’s global warming, because (ivory gulls) live so far away from communities,” he said.

“And it’s not like there’s oil spills, or pollution or over-fishing or other things that often cause declines.

“I suspect it has something to do with the changing ice flows.”

This is why polar bears are dying off, he added.

“And it’s why pigeon guillemots appear to be declining in Yukon, and why plants are disappearing along our coast and that sort of thing — it’s sea-ice related.”

The ivory gull is now in the Environment department’s freezer.

And people have been stopping by to see it, said Bennett.

“The recommendation has been to give it to Canadian Wildlife Service,” he said.

The gull will probably end up at the National Museum or a similar institution where specialists can do an autopsy and find out why it died, said Bennett.

“They’ll probably save tissue samples, look for contaminates and things like this, just to have a study skin, because these are extremely rare.”

In 2006, ivory gulls were placed on Canada’s endangered species list.