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Seagulls travel together in groups, but prefer to be alone when they feel sick. bertknot/flickr, CC BY-SA

Curious Kids: Where do seagulls go when they die and why don’t we find dead seagulls on the beach?

This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!

Where do seagulls go when they die? You never see dead seagulls on the beach. - Charles, age 8, Mt Kembla, NSW.

This is a great question and you are not alone in wondering where seagulls go when their time is up.

I used to wonder this myself as a kid and thought that since they have wings, they simply fly up to heaven. While that is not the correct answer, it is a lot nicer than the one I am going to give.

As we see so many seagulls flying around, you would think that dead birds would be seen everywhere a lot of the time. Yet as you have observed, this is not the case.

I would say there are a few things happening that stop you from finding many dead gulls.

First of all, a sick gull is not likely to be flying around with a big group. This is because gulls are very competitive and will fight with other gulls – even sick ones. Also, a sick bird is an easy target for other predators. Foxes will hunt them on dry land, raptors will hunt them in the sky, and sharks or other large fish will eat them if they float in the oceans.

Read more: Curious Kids: Do sharks sneeze?

Birds can usually sense when they are not feeling well and like many other creatures, seem to seek out-of-the-way places to be alone. Sick birds will go to ground and because they feel vulnerable, or like they are in danger, they will hide away. They hide in a safe, comfortable and private place – and for a bird, the beach is not safe or private because it’s too out in the open. Sometimes this rest helps them recover, but sometimes not.

When a sick or injured seagull dies while hiding, their body stays hidden. They become easy targets for the many predators that live in the same environment. Attracted by the smell of rotting bodies, scavengers of all kinds (crabs, foxes, even rats) quickly begin eating the dead body, making short work of the bird remains that are easy to digest. While you may find a cluster of feathers here and there, the wind quickly scatters these feathers and the death of a bird is usually not noticed.

Read more: Curious Kids: Do animals sleep like people? Do snails sleep in their shells?

You see, the skeletons of seagulls (and other birds) are so delicate and small that they decay quickly and leave no trace of their bodies. All the body parts of a bird are fairly easy to consume and digest, so not much is left behind. Feathers stick around more easily, showing that a bird has died much more often than bones will.

The earth itself will use elements of the dead bird’s body to help grow nutrients in the soil, which will mean that more plants can grow nearby. The cycle of life continues in this way. Nature wastes nothing.

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