Interview: Emily Beasley and the Behavioral Ecology of Gulls
When you think of scientists studying animals, the first think you think of might not be a seagull. Especially since, as we mention later, gulls tend to get somewhat of a bad reputation. You think of gulls and you think of annoying pests on the beach, trying to steal your french fries. But this scientist doesn't see gulls as the average beach-goer might.
Meet Emily Beasley, a Behavioral Ecologist who is most interested in studying seagulls, and loves to do it. We talked to her earlier this month, asking her about her job and how she entered the field in the first place, and what specifically she has learned in her study of seagulls.
Q: First of all, to start things off, Emily, I want to say thank you for sitting down with me today and taking time out of your day to answer some of our questions! I know you've been extremely busy lately, so this means a lot! I’m sure our readers will enjoy this throughly.
A: It’s my pleasure!
Q: I want to start off with a basic question about what you do. So your field of study is Behavioral Ecology, which is the study of animal behavior as related to adaption, causation, and development, correct?
A: Yes, that’s exactly right. It also involves examining how environmental factors impact on changes in animal behavior.
Q: Very cool. This kind of science has always been right up my alley. So I’m curious: How did you find yourself in this field of study and how long have you been researching animal behavior?
A: I’ve always loved animals and have had pets all my life. I started riding horses when I was ten and eventually I got a job doing barn chores and teaching riding lessons. But it really took shape for me when I was an undergraduate student. I got the opportunity to work at a pet store that did a lot of animal adoptions, and we also hand-raised baby parrots.
For my undergraduate dissertation I did a research project on the impact of ecological validity in puzzle solving abilities of Congo African Parrots. My supervisor at the time, Professor Maryanne Fisher, connected me with Professor Tom Dickens who runs a field trip to Lundy Island in the UK every year. I did the field study and absolutely loved it. I spent a lot of time with Dr. Rob Spencer watching a gull colony on the island and I was hooked.
When it came time for me to apply to grad school, there was an opportunity to work with Tom and Rob again at Middlesex University in London.
Q: All of that sounds extremely fascinating and really, really fun. Especially the opportunity to do the field study. That must’ve been a fantastic trip — I can’t even imagine. What’s your favorite part about the process of studying animal behavior? Do you have a favorite step, or something else about the research that you enjoy the most?
A: It was wonderful. I’ve been back to Lundy every year since that first trip and I still love it.
I really enjoy collecting data. Being in the field is my favorite place to be, whether it’s in a city looking at urban wildlife or on a remote island watching seabirds. A lot of work foes into developing and piloting a project before you can go out and collect data, so it’s really rewarding when you see all of your efforts come together. It’s also a chance to observe the animals in their natural environment and see how they interact with each other and the environment. You can learn a lot by just attentively watching your study species.
Q: Oh, I bet. As kids, when you’re watching animals in your own backyard you can learn a lot, so I can’t even imagine how much you’d be able to learn on a trip like that! Judging by your twitter, your favorite animal to study are birds. And it would appear that you have a project going on right now to study gulls in urban areas! What specifically are you hoping to learn with this project?
A: Yes, they definetely are my favorite!
I actually just finished my Master of Science by Research degree from Middlesex. I was studying a population of Lesser Black-backed gulls and Herring gulls in Bath, England. I was interested in gull-human interactions, and gull populations dynamics across the breeding season.
I collected data for 5 months over the 2017 breeding season. What I found was that the population of foraging gulls in the city fluctuated throughout the breeding season.
The phases in the breeding season were divided by major events that generally happen around the same time every year. The phases are:
1 — Settling; when the adult gulls return to the breeding sites.
2 — Laying; when the females lay their eggs.
3 — Incubation; incubation of the eggs, which is shared by both parents in my study species.
4 — Rearing; once the chicks have hatched and the parents start to provision them. And finally:
5 — Fledging; when the chicks leave the next and learn to forage on their own.
There tended to be more gulls in town during the rearing and fledging phases. This was likely because there was pressure on the adult gulls to provision their growing chicks with more food.
The key findings with regards to gull nuisance behavior were that there was no gull aggression towards humans at all during the course of the breeding season. Gull nuisance occurred more frequently near the end of the breeding season, when the chicks were beginning to fledge, but even then I didn’t observe much nuisance behavior.
Gulls get a bit of a bad reputation, but they’re actually very intelligent, long-lived birds. Also, all species of breeding gulls in the UK are considered birds of conservation, concern, and the Herring gull is red listed (globally threatened) due to severe declines in their national breeding populations, so it’s really important that people work together to help these gulls instead of vilify them.
Q: Okay — so this project had already taken place then. All of that is really incredible, actually. And I agree with you; there are a lot of animals we tend to vilify solely because of ignorance. But when you think about animals who have a bad rap, you tend to think of animals like sharks, or predator-creatures, and there tend to be more people on the side of trying to get them to have a better reputation than on an animal like the gull. So I think this is really important research you did, and I need to admit it wasn’t even something I had thought about on my own. I’d love to hear more about this at another time! Are you planning on publishing this research?
And then, if you were to give advice to someone looking to enter the same field of research as you, what do you think you would tell them?
A: I totally agree with you! Thank you — there are a lot of great gull and seabird researchers in the UK trying to spread knowledge and I want to contribute as much as I can. I would like to get it published. I think it’s important to share what we’re doing as researchers with the rest of the academic community and with the non-academic community, too.
I’d say take opportunities as they come and always be open to new experiences. Try to put yourself in situations where you are building skills that you would like to have, but also meeting people who are interested and already working in a field you want to enter. You never know who you’re going to meet while you’re at a conference or volunteering. Put yourself out there, do what you love, and share your passion with others.
Q: I think that’s good advice! Thank you so, so much for joining me again, Emily. Really. It’s been a really interesting chat, and I had a really nice time!
A: I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you for your interest!