The Rise of the Urban Seagull
Created | Updated Apr 27, 2016
If seagulls had hands they would use them to hold beer cans.
– An h2g2 Researcher
When once you used to delight in being awoken by the dawn chorus, a more rude awakening is now instigated by a high-pitched shrieking bird-call that can sound just like a blood-curdling scream. Since the decline of the fishing industry, urban areas inland have a new resident, a menace as maligned as rats, only these creatures have wings. Seagulls1 used to follow trawlers to be fed, as eloquently described by French footballer Eric Cantona:
When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea2.
Nowadays the seagulls, which mostly appear to be Herring and Black-headed gulls3, follow the food trail. Since the 1993 Clean Air Act banning the burning of household waste came into force, councils have been disposing of rubbish (including waste food) at landfill sites. Effectively this is an all-you-can-eat buffet for creatures such as seagulls and rats. Gulls have been spotted at a landfill site near Roswell, New Mexico, a thousand miles away from any ocean.
Gulls are impressive birds which have to be seen close up, either on the ground or in flight, to fully appreciate their size. Their wingspan can top 1.7m (5.5'), and armed with a sharp, curved upper beak they can do quite a lot of damage to a person's skull and skin.
All gulls are omnivorous (they literally will eat anything, even Doritos – see 'Sam' below) with their normal diet ranging from shellfish to seal afterbirth4. They're not averse to picking over a carcass of their own species, or running off with a fellow gull's chick clamped in their beak. The gulls, which mate for life, can have a breeding life of 30 years. They lay up to three eggs per time and nine out of ten fledged chicks survive to adulthood.
The seagull population is expected to reach 1.5 million within the next decade – ten times the figure given for 2006 – other factors to explain the urban influx are that it's warmer and safer in towns. Even patrolling cats don't fancy their chances against such large and agile birds, so the gulls have virtually no predators, therefore nothing to fear. According to the latest figures provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds5, there are 138,014 breeding pairs of Black-headed gulls (and 139,309 breeding pairs of Herring gulls) resident in the UK, which gives them 'Amber' status. Possibly every inner city will have its own marauding gull colony soon!
Ruling the Roost
From afar gull cries are as soothing as the ocean waves breaking on the shore. Up close and you can't hear yourself think.
– An h2g2 Researcher
The more plucky birds have moved into towns for select delicacies like last week's bread, which householders chuck on their lawns for garden birds like robins and blackbirds. Nearby streetlights make the food supply available round the clock, and provide perfect perching facilities for the birds, with the added advantage of panoramic views. Dogwalkers have learned to avoid allowing their pets to cock their legs at a telephone post or streetlamp inhabited above by a seagull, who seem to have perfected the art of using said interlopers as target practice. The gulls also seem to love splattering parked cars with their excrement.
The seagulls lie in wait for the next free meal then as soon as the back door opens, one rustle of the bread packet and it's time to alert their mates. 'Kyaa-kya-kya-kya-kya-kya-kya... kyau!6' then dive-bomb in unison, creating a full-scale battle royale over the scraps.
The feeding frenzy can be quite vicious and cause the kindly householder to run for cover. Once upon a time seagulls would not land in a garden, but now they do, thanks to the rise in popularity of lawn-removal/replacement with concrete slabs and/or decking. They not only land, they defend 'their territory' against other gulls, other types of birds, pets, and often, visitors to the house, as well as the householder themselves.
People are quite understandably unnerved or even frightened by the proximity of the birds, which they liken to 'scenes from a Hitchcock film'. Welsh residents in Cardiff have complained that seagulls are using their roofs as nesting grounds and then defending their chicks by attacking householders and regular visitors like postmen. Some people will not leave their homes without umbrellas for protection from aerial attack. Complaining to the council didn't do any good: their response was that the problem was UK-wide, and all they could do was offer advice, as they did not have a duty to deal with the gulls.
The problem can be much worse, one 80-year-old north Wales pensioner suffered a suspected heart attack and died after he was attacked by gulls. Other seagull attacks have been reported the length and breadth of the UK. An unlucky pet dog which ventured too near a nest in Devon was pecked to death. These may be extreme incidents but the gull problem isn't just affecting homelife: try eating a bag of chips on holiday, for example while nonchalantly walking along Cleethorpes promenade. You will have an audience of dozens of gulls hungrily eyeing up your snack.
Another one of the pleasures of strolling along a beach is enjoying licking an ice cream before it melts in the summer heat. Seagulls love these too! The gulls have learned that there are no ice cream leftovers to be scavenged so they swoop while there's still some to be had. These bombardments involve aerial dexterity usually seen in a circus ring performed by acrobats. In one fell swoop they identify their target, accurately snatch the ice cream cone in their beak and fly off before you can even react!
One disrespectful seagull took a liking to the village church in Bodmin, Cornwall. He liked it so much that he took a mate and the pair created a nest in the ramparts, eventually raising a chick. That's when the trouble started, because people attending the church were attacked by the defending parent bird. The vicar and his flock had to put up with the birds until nature had run its course: the chick fledged and the nest was abandoned.
Seagulls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, making it an offence to kill the birds or interfere with their nests. Culling the birds is illegal, and putting poisonous food down is unethical as there's no guarantee the gull would be the consumer. One obvious solution is to go back to burning household rubbish, but supporters of the Clean Air Act would be up in arms. Attempts to scare the opportunistic gulls away from residential streets include an electronic bird scarer which mimics a gull in distress, but one homeowner said it had no effect on the birds and only upset the local human population.
In some areas the gulls pull off pieces of rendering from house roofs. To prevent a repeat occurrence some householders use pitch to coat the replaced render.
St Mark's School in Brighton, East Sussex, had to remove seagull nests and cover the school roof with netting to prevent the birds' return. The seagulls had attacked the school caretaker and the risk to schoolchildren and teachers was deemed unacceptable. Unfortunately the removal of the nests meant that the law was broken, but no charges were brought because the only alternative was the closure of the school until the birds had left. A lesser of two evils or Hobson's choice?
Recently a hawk has been employed by Bristol Council to scare the birds away from their nesting places. A school in Ayrshire, Scotland, also brought in hawks as deterrents. Gloucester Council engaged an owl, which shared the same success as the hawk. An enterprising company called Hawk Force offers to provide trained falconers and birds-of-prey to chase off gulls and pigeons. Their aim is to scare them away, not to kill, but no doubt the seagulls just find somewhere else to roost.
Some councillors, like Sue Tritton of Edinburgh are taking the problem seriously and actively promoting the issue as part of their workload. One experiment which seemed to bear fruit was replacing a gull egg with a similarly-coloured stone. The parent birds continue to turn-take incubation, but the 'eggs' don't hatch.
Another council advertised for an egg oiler to coat the eggs with liquid paraffin, which creates a barrier around the egg, sterilising it. Ergo, the birds waste a breeding season, albeit unknowingly. This seems cruel but faced with being overrun by a burgeoning population of protected 'landgulls', it seems the likeliest option. Now they just need to locate some brave volunteers to deal with the gulls' eggs...
Some councils are more pro-active than Cardiff Council mentioned earlier. Beginning in January 2009, Dumfries and Galloway Council in Scotland are drawing up a three-year plan to eradicate the urban seagull population. Proposals being put forward include nest removal, egg removal/replacement and engaging a falcon to prevent the gulls making nests. Any chicks discovered would be subject to 'humane euthanasia'. Environment Minister Mike Russell is hoping that, with the prototype scheme expected to cost £85,000 in the first year, initial success may prompt Government grants towards the following years' costs. Overall success may form a template for other councils to follow suit.
What do you think of it so far?
A change in human behaviour would address the [urban seagull] issue better than taking action against the birds.
– Spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
According to the RSPB, the seabird population has dropped 40% in the last 30 years, but you wouldn't think so in some areas which appear to be overrun with seagulls. There is evidence that some gulls are becoming less scared of humans as they're effectively being fed by them, and some councils are advising residents not to throw out bread. The gulls used to shred black bags of rubbish left out for collection instead of, or as well as, metal bins, but most householders have now been supplied with wheelie bins, and excess rubbish disposal (usually contained in flimsy black binbags which are easily split) is discouraged with the threat of fines.
In Support of the Gulls
I work near Birmingham city centre and every year we have several rival colonies fighting for the right to nest on the rooftops of our site. It makes fascinating viewing, the noise makes it feel like you're at the seaside, and later in the year we'll be able to watch the chicks take their first tentative flights. I just try not to use the fire escape too much in summer to avoid being dive-bombed!
– An h2g2 Researcher
In the gulls' defence we did encroach on their more traditional food sources and territory first, they learned to follow in trawler wakes for small fry being thrown back which meant easy pickings for them. Now that option has been all but eradicated, you can't really blame the gulls for searching for food elsewhere, and they've learned that there is an abundance where humans live.
Some people love the stately, photogenic gulls, like to watch them fly and even enjoy hearing the sounds they make. One such larophile, Robert H Lewis, who raves about their intellectual and aesthetic qualities, has spent over a quarter of a century studying and photographing gulls of all kinds.
Around the globe there are places where gulls are celebrated and honoured. In Japan the Black-headed gull Yurikamome is revered so much that it is a symbol of one of their regions, and their automated transport system is named after it. The California gull, Larus californicus, was pronounced the official state bird of Utah in 1955. 'Seagulls' is the nickname of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, and predictably they have a seagull (called 'Gully') for a mascot. You can purchase a seagull outfit for a fancy dress party or as a change from dressing up as a vampire or wicked witch for Hallowe'en. There is even a 'seagull' in outer space... called, not unsurprisingly, The Seagull Nebula.
Sam the Shoplifting Seagull
Gulls have a 'cheekiness' appeal, which can be an endearing quality to those who like their rebels. One seagull actively attempting to fit into human society has taken to shoplifting his favourite crisps. 'Sam' – as he has been dubbed by locals – raids a newsagent's shop in Aberdeen's Castlegate, apparently hanging around until the shop is empty of customers and the shopkeeper is busy at the till or restocking his shelves, then nipping in to snaffle a bag of tangy cheese Doritos! A video of this sneaky gull performing his party trick is viewable on YouTube. Local residents are so enthralled by his fearless antics that they are paying for the snacks he pilfers, although this has been condemned by a spokesperson for RSPB Scotland who said:
We'd discourage people from feeding gulls, as gulls in towns generate lots of complaints every year, and the availability of food is the only reason they live in urban settings.
Post Gull Remorse
One intrepid Researcher studied the behaviour of urban seagulls from a top floor flat in Aberdeen, Scotland, for some years. There was a street of one-storey semis which always had a seagull or two on every other roof, but recently they've not been there and there were less gulls sitting among the chimney pots of the higher buildings. Where the seagulls used to roost, now jackdaws have moved in, but nesting inside pots, blocking them, whereas the gulls used to nest between the pots. Jackdaws can go inside the pots, with sticks, despite the fact they have to go up angled, short flues to do so. They also picked out the mortar from the top line of bricks of the chimneys, to the point where a couple of bricks fell off and rolled down the roof, and all the other bricks had to be removed. Seagulls seem almost innocuous in comparison to jackdaws. Is this a classic example of 'Be careful what you wish for?'