Fast food fattens feathered friends

April 21, 2006

For the past two years, Heidi Auman has been studying hundreds of silver gulls on the shores around Hobart in Tasmania and on the remote islands in Bass Strait.

Ms Auman, who is completing her PhD at the University of Tasmania, has based her research on the hypothesis that birds feeding on junk food suffer the same consequences as humans.

She has dubbed her project "Supersize Me: The Effects of Junk Food on Seagulls" because the Hobart gulls are significantly heavier than the control birds on the islands, which feed on berries, invertebrates and small fish.

Although she was not surprised at the high cholesterol and glucose levels found in the junk-food eaters, she was startled by how much weightier the birds were. They had the same body structure as the control group on the islands but they were not bigger, just heavier: "a fatter sea gull".

"Those in Hobart eat almost exclusively tip food, restaurant scraps and handouts from humans, including little old ladies who throw white bread to them," Ms Auman said.

As well as watching the birds' behaviour, she also catches them in nets, weighs them and takes samples of their blood and eggs, which are then analysed.

Holding wild birds in the hand can be a gratifying honour, even if they bite, scratch, defecate or regurgitate on you, Ms Auman said. The silver gull, she argued, had capitalised on a wasteful society.

Although many people view the birds as pests because of their artificially inflated numbers, it is humans who have been responsible for the population growth. "We are the ones directly or indirectly providing them with food that is not necessarily healthy for them, just as it is not necessarily healthy for us."

Ms Auman's work highlights the global nature of academic research. She is an American ornithologist based at Tasmania, who is completing her PhD with her supervisor, Catherine Meathrel, head of La Trobe University's marine ornithology group in Victoria.

"I heard about Catherine on the grapevine and got in touch before I started. She has a world-wide reputation and a generous ability to take students under her wing, if you will pardon the pun," Ms Auman said.

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