Research stories – Developing a ‘Gull-proof’ material

Museum collections can have many varied and unexpected applications for scientific research.
In this blog we will find out how a taxidermy gull from the Manchester Museum collections was used by engineering students studying material sciences to help develop a more ‘peck-resistant’ material.
Gulls can cause serious damage to buildings. When feeding the impact of their sharp beaks can puncture roofing materials, making them no longer waterproof. This has caused some serious and expensive problems in cities around the world including Manchester.

Herring gull Larus argentatus, Manchester Museum Collections.

Researchers at the School of Materials, Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Manchester have used the museum collections to find a solution to this problem.
Students developed a test to simulate damage to buildings caused by gull pecking. They measured the beaks of different species of gulls in the collection and then made a model. The impact of the beak model was tested on different materials.
Two beak models were made based on two different species; the world’s largest gull, the Great black-backed gull Larus marinus and the smaller Herring Gull Larus argentatus. The taxidermy birds were used to measure the shape of the beak focusing on the tip which causes the most damage.

Figure 1: Great black-backed gull Larus marinus. Model based on region indicated with red square.
Figure 2: Design and dimensions of the aluminium model beak.

The beak model was attached to an Izod impact testing machine and tested on aluminium alloy, zinc and mild steel, any visible damage caused was recorded. Impact tests are used to study the toughness of different materials.

Figure 3: Image of a standard Izod test apparatus setup.

To relate the damage caused in the experiment to the real problem of bird pecking damage, it was necessary to estimate the impact energy associated with pecking. To do this the moving mass of the gull was estimated as well as the pecking velocity. There is limited research investigating gulls but scientists at Keio University, Tokyo, Japan have studied the pecking performance of crows. The pecking impact energy was estimated at 1.1 Joules, all of the materials tested were resistant to the model beak at this energy, including aluminium a commonly used roofing material.

Manchester University students successfully designed a test to simulate bird pecking damage, providing data and evidence for the best material to use for roofing. Taxidermy birds were essential for this research; students were able to record accurate beak measurements, something that would be impossible to do with live birds.
Manchester Museum has a large collection of many different species of birds, these hold a wealth of data and research potential which can be accessed by students and researchers. Material scientists at the University of Manchester hope to use this information to help to develop new materials resistant to bird damage.

Further reading

Carr, L. and Reyes-Galindo, L., 2017. ‘The Year of the Gull’: Demonisation of Wildlife, Pestilence and Science in the British Press. In Intercultural Communication and Science and Technology Studies (pp. 147-174). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Matsui, H. and Izawa, E.I., 2017. Flexible motor adjustment of pecking with an artificially extended bill in crows but not in pigeons. Royal Society open science, 4(2), p.160-796.

RSPB., 2021. Gulls and Terns. RSPB [Online] [Accessed on 7th January 2021 https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/gulls-and-terns/

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