Category Archives: Birds

Local gull and bird group face a new rescue season but need new volunteers

Local groups of dedicated bird lovers last year went beyond breaking point as they worked around the clock to help injured and orphaned birds following the closures of wildlife sites in the wake of the Avian Flu crisis. This year looks set to be different. 

The outbreak of Avian Flu that swept through East and West Sussex earlier in May last year left hundreds of adult birds dead or dying, with their healthy offspring left abandoned

Volunteers stepped into rescue reported injured or distressed birds, including pigeons that were not affected by the epidemic and were put into strict quarantine measures. Once out they were sent into rehab centres in and out of Sussex and later released, living happy healthy lives.

Justin King who runs the East Sussex Rescue Group and Nerys Deutsch the West Sussex side called The South Coast & Sussex Bird/Gull Volunteer Network (jokingly known as The Chicklet Crew) were among others called out day and night to help with rescues and rehabilitation of injured or malnourished birds.

He said “Looking back, I don’t know how anyone managed as well as they did. It was well known that volunteers were left to deal with the situation last year and it definitely left scars. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, so myself and Nerys drew up strict measures as outlined to us by one sanctuary who specialises in gulls. Once Avian Flu had been confirmed last April, we went into overdrive to make special arrangements. Within two weeks we had on board a publicist to highlight the help we needed, brought in fosterers who worked closely with us to turn their homes into isolation areas, plus new rescuers came in to help get casualties back onto rooftop nests during baby season. Many coped extremely well, but others found it too much and left. It became massively tense and stressful. Luckily, we’ve had the winter to recover which is critical for any volunteer to avoid burnout.

“I know too well how all-consuming it was for everyone” said Justin. “To top it, misinformation and internet hysteria contributed to the stress, but that’s Facebook for you. Too many know-it-alls, not enough truth”.

Much like Covid, Avian Flu has died down, but only a little. It has spread to other waterfowl and still remains rife in many areas of the UK and beyond.

“Last year took us by surprise. But this year we are taking no chances and plans are underway to make sure everyone knows the quarantine and sanitising regulations (just in case) before handling each casualty. We now know that at least three wildlife sites in Sussex are expanding upon their isolation units, one of which was partially funded by our fundraiser which we are continuing to do. Our fundraiser and supporters kept us going and it has also allowed us to set up a fully functional aviary, which opens up for the first time in Worthing this spring. Plus we helped in a small way to finance other volunteer groups and Rehab sites up and down the UK where there is so little available in the way of help. Its been gut wrenching all round, but we just continued” said Justin.

“We will know in the next month or so where we stand with Avian Flu. Should it return we hope to be prepared. If it doesn’t return to affect gulls, quarantine measures will still be needed. All it will take is one case to put an entire wildlife site into jeopardy. We won’t allow that. The feedback of last year from the sites who worked with us is that our measures were 100% effective. That’s a percentage that made the job worth it, even if it did make us unpopular with our over-zealous measures! Dialogue has opened up with some wildlife sites so we hope for a better year.”

But what we need this season are back up plans… just to be safe 

The group desperately needs more drivers and rescuers to help oversee each rescue. Those who can go out to either injured or abandoned casualties they spot online. Any offers of more outdoor spaces, ideally an aviary to house healthy quarantined young abandoned chicks until fit for release or transfer to wildlife sites in the local area. However, many elements of rescuing is not something that can be done on your own initiative. Not in the beginning. Every case is specific so working as part of an established team of knowledgeable staff is key. Teamwork is essential. If all you can do is get a towel over a casualty to put in a crate, this alone will save us a job. 

“Right now, we’re in a cost of living crisis. Even volunteers have to work, so expecting someone to go out at a moment’s notice is not going to happen. Get a casualty safe, inside and behind closed doors, then contact us. We have plenty of carriers so just ask” said Justin.

“We’re funded by the public so if all you can do is donate, anything even in the way of cat or dog food is helpful. What we don’t use we pass onto charities who may need it more. If you would like to volunteer or support the team this summer, please go here…”

Life with Justin King of the South Coast and UK Bird/Gull Volunteer Network

Yeah, so where was I? When I moved in here about 11 years ago now there was a gull standing on the fence.”

Which is not unusual in Brighton. 

“I suppose it isn’t, but I just threw out a bit of food and from that moment on, he decided he quite liked being here so he brought his partner along, but then another two came along and were a bit jealous about what was going on so they scared off my first two but they came back and… I’m surprised he’s not here actually”. 

The Whistler is in a garden near the seafront and we’re with Justin King, prime mover of the South Coast and UK Bird/Gull Volunteer Network, a group dedicated to helping and rescuing our favourite birds. If life can be split into “Good Guys” and “Not Good Guys”, Justin is about as good a good guy can be. 

“If I throw a bit of ham I bet you he’ll arrive. He’s called Brutus he’s also a bit of a celebrity because we’ve got an Instagram page and we’ve got a Facebook page I constantly take pictures of him and his partner and… I’ll tell you what, let me get a bit of ham”. Justin disappears into his kitchen and emerges with a small packet of ham slices. He reaches into the packet, throws his hand in the air and, from nowhere, we’re in a scene from Hitchcock. 

“There’s Brutus” he says as a gull that looks disarmingly like a gull swoops down for Justin’s ham. “He’s been a bit of a constant for me, but I have all kinds of birds that come into the garden.” Justin reaches for another handful of ham and throws it over his fence into the neighbouring car park.

The Whistler is admittedly a bit biased, but we think gulls are just lovely and we’re very happy to be in a city where the… whatever the national symbol of a city is called, is a gull. But gulls, like all birds, have had a tough time recently. Avian flu – “flockdown” – has hit hard, which has meant that charities and rescue centres have been reluctant to take injured or needy birds in. And that has meant, what it always means: volunteers need help. In the last year, the Network has raised £170,000 for Bird Aid, which is an extraordinary amount. 

Justin rattled off a list of names. “Tony Bloom, owner of Brighton and Hove Albion, got involved in the Bird Aid campaign last year…” Well, he does own The Seagulls… “which was brilliant. But then we’ve got a lot of celebrities on board. Chris Packham. He put a post on Facebook. Ricky Gervais posts on his Twitter. Holly Willoughby. Oh, Woody Cook. Actually it was Woody who… once he started it snowballed. Loads of other naturalism environmentalists got involved.” 

Just as we’re talking, Justin’s phone goes. He’s making an arrangement. 

“What’s that?” I ask. 

“Someone’s coming round to pick up the pigeon to take him to a sanctuary”. 

“What pigeon?”

Justin takes me round to what looks like a garden shed. Well, OK. It is a garden shed. Carefully he opens the door and there, standing on one foot and looking a bit sorry for himself, a pigeon. 

“He’s hurt his foot and can’t put any weight on it and someone brought him round. He’s stayed here for a couple of days and then he’s going to go to the sanctuary to fully recover”. 

I love these people. I love the person who found the pigeon and picked him up, I love Justin who has nurtured him, I love the people who have a sanctuary where he can recover.   

What is the Brighton gull population? What number are we talking? 

“I don’t actually know, but in general the species is in decline. Herring gulls are on the endangered species list, the Red List. Herring gulls. Yep. The ones you just see. They’re all herring gulls. And I know you wouldn’t think so, but it’s true, they’re on the decline. Saying that though, a lot of wildlife is in decline.

“There’s a lot of ignorance and intolerance towards a lot of forms of wildlife. There’s been cases in Woodingdean of people poisoning foxes because they don’t want them coming into the garden and digging up their lawns. Birds being shot, you name it, it’s happened. Yeah, shocking. Yeah. I mean when you think of Sussex, the word that synonymous with the countryside. If you don’t like birds, don’t live by the coast, go and live in Milton Keynes. Sorry, but it really is relentless”.

How many people are there in your group?

“The group has approximately 3,200 members, but the majority of them aren’t really active. Mostly, it’s just a few people. A lot of people have dropped out because times are hard for everyone and not everyone has so much time anymore. The cost of living crisis has made people reprioritise”.

So hardcore volunteers? Let’s put it this way. How many are as committed as you?

“Probably about a dozen. But it’s been difficult and because of avian flu this year, I’ve literally had to throw myself headlong into this. Yeah, the whole campaign. It’s left no time for anything else.

Watching Justin, listening to him, I know there’s nothing he’d prefer to be doing. He has, in every sense, found his calling. 

Justin looks up to the skies where the gulls are still circling, a bit distracted. Do you listen to the goals and recognise different calls?

“Yes. That’s the whistling you can hear there, the babies. I always know that sound. But I’m also familiar with my regular gull who comes to visit. He stands on the shed and waits for his food. And when he screeches, I recognise it. It’s just, I mean, they’re all different. Anyway, I recognise the way he does it and the sound that he makes and yeah, so I know when he’s here”.

Justin looks up again. 

“I was just thinking I should go and check on the ham I threw over the fence. I want to make sure they all got some” 

Check out the Whistler website for details of the South Coast and UK Bird/Gull Volunteer Network Go Fund Me page or go to their Facebook group page of the same name

Check out the Whistler website for details of the South Coast and UK Bird/Gull Volunteer Network Go Fund Me page or go to their Facebook group page of the same name