Construction cranes tower stork-like over the skyline of this burgeoning burg 200-plus miles above the Arctic Circle. Spurred by a recent flood of adventurers chasing the northern lights and sightseers wanting a glimpse of the glaciers before they’re gone, this tourism hub on Norway’s north coast has been building hotels geared for an anticipated 2.3 million visitors a year.
While the human tourist boom is on hold for now, some visitors are still flocking in and looking for suitable places to stay. These guests are black-legged kittiwakes—the most seafaring member of the gull family, and one that is facing an uncertain future.
Usually, kittiwakes nest in cliffs over the ocean and seldom venture inland. But in the past few years from March to September, that’s changed. Now, due to a warming ocean, increased storminess and other changes that are decimating chick production in their normal habitat, the birds have been setting up house in places such as shopping centers and office buildings in Tromsø and other towns along Norway’s north coast, where they are rankling locals with their noise and mess.
“There's something going on in the bird cliffs that makes them struggle to raise chicks,” says Reiertsen. “The kittiwake cliffs are just being emptied.”
This unusual urban invasion may be a last chance for the region’s kittiwakes, whose numbers along the coast of Norway have plunged by three-quarters since the 1980s, says Tone Kristin Reiertsen, a seabird ecologist with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research in Tromsø.
Taking a cue from the hotel construction around Tromsø, Reiertsen and a group of colleagues have hatched a plan to help save these iconic Arctic seabirds. They’re building boutique hotels just for kittiwakes, so the birds can raise their families in town without being a nuisance to people.
Struggling to raise chicks
Seabirds worldwide are in crisis, with global populations plummeting nearly 70 percent over the past 70 years due to climate change, overfishing, habitat loss, and other human impacts on their environment. The scene is especially drastic in the Arctic. And kittiwakes, once a common sight swirling in the hundreds of thousands across sea cliffs in the northern United Kingdom, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway—home to more than half of the species' breeding population—are among the hardest hit.
"There are huge concerns about kittiwakes in Europe,” says Mark Mallory, an environmental scientist and Arctic seabird expert at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada. “They've declined in massive numbers.”
The species is now rated as vulnerable on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s red list. At the current rate of decline, scientists project that kittiwakes could become extinct in Norway within four decades.
Reiertsen and other scientists are trying to determine the reasons for the kittiwakes’ urban migration, but say ocean warming plays a leading role. Sea surface temperatures off the northern coast of Norway have warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1980s, which may be driving the birds’ traditional food sources of small crustaceans, capelin and other fish out of reach.
In fact, in an ironic twist, kittiwakes may be overcoming their naturally people-shy habits and nesting near humans for protection from predators like sea eagles that could be increasingly going after chicks as the nearshore food supply diminishes.
On top of that, weather during the breeding season is turning worse. Wind data for the coast of Norway show a trend of rising wind speeds in July and August, just when chicks are in the nest, Reiertsen says. This unseasonal weather is “making it very hard for the birds to raise chicks,” she says, “because they cannot enter the cliff to feed them.”
The only place the birds seem to be able to breed successfully around Norway these days is in human-made bird cliffs, especially multistory public buildings in towns and cities miles from their natural habitat. Tromsø’s kittiwake incursion began six years ago, with about 10 pairs. Last year, more than a hundred kittiwake couples raised their families in Tromsø’s picturesque downtown.
The movement stretches along the coast from Ålesund, in the western fjords, to Vardø, near the Russian border, with birds flocking to places like Hammerfest, where as many as 400 pairs recently disrupted classes at the high school, and Berlevåg, where they’ve taken over the local pub.
Unlike their larger and more familiar gull cousins, kittiwakes don’t frequent garbage dumps or steal your fries at the beach, and are almost never seen this far from the open sea. The scientists had hoped to put GPS trackers on the Tromsø birds this summer to see where they are foraging and whether they’ve found a new source of food. But coronavirus travel restrictions could keep them from doing that this year.
Only in one other urban area—Newcastle-Gateshead in northeastern England —have the birds nested in large numbers, taking up summer residence on the landmark Tyne Bridge and buildings along the river.
As in Norway, the natural kittiwake colonies around the United Kingdom are crashing, while the Newcastle birds seem to be thriving, says Helen Wilson, a cultural and social geographer at Durham University, who is consulting with Reiertsen and colleagues on how to accommodate the avian immigrants. Given how quickly the numbers have been increasing in Tromsø over the last few years, she says, more kittiwakes could move into urban environments.
For a city’s human residents, however, the birds can make unpleasant neighbors. Known for their exuberant calls—their name is a rendition of their resonating sound—kittiwakes are especially vocal during the breeding season, when it’s a 24-hour din under Tromsø’s midnight sun. To keep them from settling, people have put up nets or spikes on some buildings, which can injure or kill birds, especially young ones. In other places, they have destroyed nests, eggs and all.
Reiertsen and colleagues operate Tromsø’s first kittiwake hotel in an abandoned building on the end of a small pier in one of the town’s harbors.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside—a graffiti-covered concrete cube the size of a garage. But there are ledges for nesting, materials for nest-building, and electronic speakers croon kittiwake songs, to lure in honeymooning birds.
As with humans, it can take a while for a new product to catch on with the birds.
Last year, when the hotel first opened in time for kittiwake breeding season, the birds headed into town instead, roosting in public places such as the dentists’ building and the university’s student café.
“Last summer there were hundreds of them breeding along the building where we have our ship,” says Mats Forsberg, a Tromsø resident and tour boat expedition guide. Forsberg says he doesn’t mind the birds, but understands why many folks in town do. “They were shitting all over the place.”
But as the birds wing back to Tromsø now, the scientists have their fingers crossed that this year the kittiwake hotel will catch on. Travel restrictions keep them from being able to check at present. But the successful kittiwake accommodations in Newcastle make them optimistic. A new kittiwake hotel is also opening in Berlevåg.
"I hope we will find solutions so that kittiwakes and humans can coexist nicely, so we can keep this species in our nature,” Reiertsen says. Otherwise, “the prognosis is very bad."
Next, she hopes to get kittiwake hotels incorporated into the building plans for this rapidly growing city. The community response is generally positive, Reiertsen says, because residents understand that if they don’t come up with alternatives, the birds will build nests on the new buildings rising around town.
“The problem is not really going away,” Reiertsen says. “Of course we cannot save everything.” But if her efforts help save one species, she says, “it will be more than worth it.”