Beauty or bandit: why are we at war with seagulls?

Larcenous mobs of gulls are ravaging our coastal towns – or so some headlines claim. But these clever birds have a wild beauty and deserve respect for their ability to live alongside us, says Mark Cocker

31st July 2017
Herring Gull perched on a grassy cliff with the sea shore waves breaking in the background. /Credit: Getty

If there were ever a popularity contest among British wildlife, I suspect gulls would be hot favourites for the booby prize. ‘Feathered rats’ or ‘rats with wings’ are part of a modern negative slang for them, and these attitudes are nothing new. 

Pie-pirate: a herring gull snatches lunch from his victim. /Credit: Sam Hobson
Pie-pirate: a herring gull snatches lunch from his victim. /Credit: Sam Hobson

Even the technical family name, Laridae, which includes Britain’s six common breeding species as well as the 20 other scarcer residents or rare visitors, comes from an ancient Greek word laros, meaning ‘ravenous seabird’.

They are truly the ones we love to hate. In the old Hitchcock classic film The Birds, gulls are the arch villains making murderous assault on the children’s birthday party and drawing blood from the beautiful blonde head of Tippi Hedren, the film’s heroine. Gulls in a hungry mob behind a tractor and plough were said to have been the real-life inspiration for the Daphne du Maurier story, on which the film is loosely based. The special effects in The Birds now may be severely dated, but the film was prescient in one regard: it predicted the bitter conflict between man and gull that has developed in many parts of this country.

Chip wars/Credit: Sam Hobson
Chip wars/Credit: Sam Hobson

Lurid tales of the birds attacking and killing small pets, of their bloody aerial assaults upon pensioners, or – the ultimate in heartless cruelty – of gulls stealing ice cream from children have become staple news items from Aberdeen to Cornwall. Yet the violence is not all on one side. In June 2016 there were reports from Berwick-upon-Tweed of vigilantes taking matters into their own hands and shooting gulls out of the sky. When the issue was debated at Westminster, the Conservative MP for Plymouth suggested that we could well “see gull wars on our high streets”.

In the beginning...

To understand the roots of the conflict, one has to go back to the 1920s and the quiet backstreets of coastal English towns such as Dover and Hastings. For it was there that herring gulls began to choose domestic and industrial buildings as places to breed. Most gulls are colonial and nest together on rocky offshore islands or narrow ledges on sea-cliffs, but they found flat-topped roofs to be a handy substitute. Before long, the town-breeding habit was passed on, until today the behaviour can be encountered in almost every coastal settlement.

Appetite for everything

Another part of the controversy stems from the birds’ extraordinary catholicity of diet. Gulls are one of the few avian groups to have mastered land, air, sea and freshwater environments. While picking off spare fish from human trawler operations has been a staple feeding method for centuries, the larger species – herring, great and lesser black-backed gulls – are also noted predators. They routinely hunt mammals or other seabirds, such as auks and shearwaters, and are not above feasting on roadkill or shoreline flotsam.

Gulls have readily added man-made opportunities to this repertoire. The roof-nesting townies have learnt to scavenge for scraps that holidaymakers throw away, which they often do to enjoy the birds’ frantic squabbling antics.

Few feeders appreciated the trouble that was being stored up. The name ‘gull’, might mean ‘fool’ or ‘dupe’, but these creatures are anything but stupid. Now they not only wait for takeaway discards, they scavenge directly from waste bins, or perform an avian version of robbery with menace, stealing food directly out of peoples’ hands. It is this learned behaviour that has led to many newspaper headlines about mob attacks by marauding birds. Yet it is hardly fair to blame the gulls, given that we taught and coaxed them into the habit.

Gull gall

There is no doubt that roof-nesting gulls present real challenges to their human neighbours. When the chicks are hatched, the parents will aggressively defend their offspring, occasionally striking passers-by from the air. Equally, the breeding sites used by gulls can become choked with both nest and old food debris and the rubbish can block drains or worse.

Kittiwake adult and chicks, Dunbar, Scotland/Credit: Getty
Kittiwake adult and chicks, Dunbar, Scotland/Credit: Getty

Yet as one environment minister has noted, much of the problem can be averted with ‘common sense’ measures. Gulls are not randomly aggressive to humans or pets. On the contrary, their defence of their chicks is a reflex and could be viewed as an expression of good parenting rather than senseless aggression. Most of the attacks on people carrying chips or ice cream on the promenade can be prevented by a ban on feeding birds in such areas and by proper security at waste bins.  

Cities provide good nesting and feeding sites for gulls/Credit: Sam Hobson
Cities provide good nesting and feeding sites for gulls/Credit: Sam Hobson

There are others part of this human-versus-bird story that are often forgotten in the heated exaggerations. We dislike gulls because they invade ‘our’ domestic space and profit from our rubbish. Rather perversely what we wish to condemn is their sheer adaptability and their success, qualities which we are ourselves possess in abundance. Perhaps they are too like us for their own good.

Saving grace

Yet gulls are rightful residents and an integral element in the coastal ecosystem. They also possess physical charms that we sometimes wish to overlook. The scientific name for the herring gull is Larus argentatus, the second word meaning ‘ornamented with silver’. It describes a plumage characteristic of many seabirds, including both terns and gulls, whereby the plumage colours are created, not by pigment, but the way in which the flight feathers refract the light. 

Gull in flight in London/Credit: Getty
Gull in flight in London/Credit: Getty

Most adults gulls may be shades of grey or charcoal, but they possess a purity of tone and a gleaming whiteness at the edges and on the undersides of their wings that can make snow seem dull. When they fly en masse, the blade-like wings beating relentlessly, the pattern of birds shifting as each jockeys for position within the flock, then gulls create a shining aura of movement and grace that can dignify the rubbish dump, or turn any seaside promenade into a scene of unexpected wild beauty. 

 

Mark Cocker is a naturalist and author of 10 books. His next – Our Place, a personal history of British nature conservation – is due out early next year.

Main image: Herring Gull perched on a grassy cliff with the sea shore waves breaking in the background. /Credit: Getty

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