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Trials, tribulations and triumphs of a long-term study of Common Guillemots [Common Murres)

Tim Birkhead

In 1972 I started my PhD on the population biology of Common Guillemots (hereafter just guillemots) on Skomer Island, Wales. I’ve been doing it ever since – not the PhD, but the study. Guillemots are long-lived and need long term research to understand their biology. Add in the fact that the environment has not remained constant since 1972, and you can see the need for a long-term study.

The original motivation for the study, dreamed up by my then supervisors David Lack and Chris Perrins was that seabird populations, including guillemots were declining and on a massive scale. Skomer Island had held around 100,000 pairs of guillemots in the 1930s but then declined (for unknown reasons) to around 6000 by the 1960s. Then in 1969 an event labeled ‘The Irish Seabird Wreck’ in which 12,000+ guillemots were known to have died, knocked the Skomer population back to just 2000 pairs. My PhD didn’t need any further justification.

Picture 1: Tim Birkhead with Common Guillemots during his PhD

A standard UK 3-year PhD was barely enough for birds that live 20-30 years and don’t start breeding until they around seven. So I continued. Initially I did this with virtually no funding and the occasional PhD – including Ben Hatchwell in the 1980s, who now continues to work on the project with me.

Around 20 years ago a body named the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) whose remit included conservation of Wales’s wildlife started to support the project by providing funding for a field assistant. It was modest but adequate funding, and I have had some superb assistants over the years. The university however, struggled to get its head round the fact that this funding didn’t come from a research council. Every year for the past 20 years I have had to make a special case for this ‘highly irregular’ type of funding. Bureaucracy!

The study comprises monitoring the survival of adult and immature birds, timing of breeding, breeding success and the diet of the chicks. There have been major changes over the forty years – a steady ‘recovery’ with an annual population growth rate of 5% (one of the very few UK colonies to be increasing); clear evidence of the effect of oiling incidents on survival. Clear evidence for climate change with breeding now two or three weeks earlier, on average than in the 1970s, but also much greater year-to-year variation. In the last few years we have seen both the latest and the earliest breeding seasons in 40 years. Our results have been published in good quality, peer-reviewed journals.

Picture 2: Tim Birkhead with Common Guillemots in recent times

Last year CCW morphed in to Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and promptly cut budgets for much of their conservation work, including the long-term guillemot study. So, for the first time in 42 years I face the prospect of not being able continue the research. This is made more poignant by the fact that this winter (2013-14) has seen some of the worst storms the UK and European western seaboard has experienced, with anther massive wreck of seabirds – at the time of writing about 25000 known deaths. Among the dead are several banded birds from Skomer including, guillemots, puffin and razorbills. The effect of the population will be detectable, but only if NRW realizes the importance of long term studies to monitor the well-being of their seabird populations. As Mike McCarthy points out in his article on this, the amount of money necessary to keep a study like this going, is trivial in the grand scheme of things.

Tim Birkhead