I’m strolling along the pier at Howth when she swoops. “Watch out for them seagulls,” the woman says, pointing at my sandwich. “Vicious little dinosaurs.”
Around us, the herring gulls gather, plotting their attack.
I head back to my house in Dublin city centre, where my housemate stands in the back garden, shaking an angry fist at the herring gulls circling overhead. For years, the birds have taken advantage of the gently sloped roofs on our terrace, building their summer nests by the chimney and raising the chicks away from any predators.
If there’s a cat or a fox nearby, the seagulls will attack it. As early as 4am, the birds wake us with their loud squawking, although sometimes they make noise all night. Earplugs do the trick for me at night, and I quite like watching nature in my back garden by day. My housemate, however, sleeps in the attic room and they are driving him to distraction.
He’s not alone. When I asked readers to talk about why they love or hate seagulls, I received more than 100 responses. Some think that seagulls are “evil” or “bullies created by the devil himself” and support a widespread cull, but many others have an affection for the birds.
They scream, but there's also a constant, whistle-like noise from them and the chicks don't stop chirping. It's like having builders constantly doing work
The list of grievances is long, and somewhat familiar. Dozens of people recount how seagulls have stolen their sandwich, ice cream, burrito, Big Mac or chips.
Allegations fly that the gulls are working in pairs, with one distracting its human victim while the other robs the food. People complain about seagulls taking ducklings, perhaps unaware they have been doing so for many millennia; some of the bigger ones have even been recorded eating pigeons. The gulls in Dublin, people claim, are significantly more aggressive than their Wexford or Donegal cousins.
Others have fonder feelings. Seagulls remind some people of the seaside or childhood holidays. Families tell of how they nursed sick or injured seagulls back to health, and how their children learned from the experience. Others simply respect the intelligence and ingenuity of birds that have made their homes alongside us.
While having a bird steal your lunch can ruin your day, noisy seagulls nesting on your roof can severely affect your quality of life. One reader says she moved house because of them.
“The level of noise has been increasing for the past two years,” says Leather. “Yes, they scream, but there’s also a constant, whistle-like noise from them and the chicks don’t stop chirping. It’s like having builders constantly doing work. It’s affecting my mood and my performance at work, and causing me real anxiety.”
He has tried various recommended solutions: a shiny-bird repellent tape, a fake owl and even an ultrasound device. None of them worked.
Bird’s eggs and nests are protected by EU and Irish wildlife legislation. Meanwhile, the number of breeding pairs is estimated to have fallen by 90 per cent over the past 30 years, causing Birdwatch Ireland to place them on a “red list” of “high conservation concern”.
Removing the nest or killing the birds is not an option. Only Balbriggan, in north county Dublin, has a derogation to remove their nests or eggs, but this is not an option elsewhere.
Rentokil, Wildlife Management Services and Ecologica Pest Control are among the companies that can help householders and businesses to control the problem.
Barry Nolan, director of Wildlife Management Services, says it’s important that people understand the birds we are increasingly sharing our urban spaces with.
“There are four main types of gulls that people see in urban areas: the migratory lesser black-backed, which comes for four months to breed and usually nests on factory rooftops; the greater black-backed, which tend to be more coastal but can be the biggest gulls nesting on rooftops; the black-headed gulls, which don’t breed on rooftops; and the herring gull, which can cause the most issues on domestic properties.”
Nolan is involved in a project to ring the birds, in an effort to monitor their population. He points out that, as they can travel long distances and across seas, getting a true picture can be complex.
Not all gulls are aggressive, we just notice the ones that are. We have taken their fish from the oceans. We are messy with our rubbish
Herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls are most likely to come into conflict with people. “They don’t breed until they’re three years of age and generally lay only two eggs a year,” says Nolan. “On average, 1.8 chicks will survive but many die, so if they’re on someone’s roof, they’re going to do what they can to protect their chick, including swooping down on people. Many chicks are eaten by urban foxes. If a chick falls off a roof, the adults will still feed and protect it – swooping on any potential threat – so it’s a good idea to try and get the chick back on the roof or another elevated place.
“We tend to get a lot of calls from people looking to get rid of the seagulls around nesting time – usually the end of April or early May, but it can be too late: we can’t do anything to move them on once there are chicks or eggs in the nest.”
Fending off gulls
Gull-proofing a property doesn’t come cheap – or at least not if you want it to work. Richard Faulkner, environmental technical field consultant for Rentokil, says spikes, tension wires and cages on roofs can work, but a surveyor needs to find the right solution for each property.
Faulkner is wary of calls for culls, pointing out that the birds are endangered and that culls can have unintended consequences as other animals move in to fill the ecological niche.
Dr Stephen Newton, senior seabird conservation officer, echoes Nolan and Faulkner by pointing out that seagulls aren’t the problem: humans are. “Not all gulls are aggressive, we just notice the ones that are. We have taken their fish from the oceans. We are messy with our rubbish. The availability of food drives them to the city and, while everyone has to do their bit locally, we need community-wide buy-in. If we stop leaving food lying around, they will get the hint.”
Birdwatch Ireland, Wildlife Management and other groups are currently carrying out a seabird census. To help out, email email@example.com
YOUR SEAGULL STORIES
“Flying Jack Russells” – Trudy McCarthy
“One swooped down and took a crisp right out of my hand as I was eating it. Fair play, I say” – @rubot
“Fierce handy at warning you about the weather” – Emmy Maher
“They’re such assholes, I can’t help loving them. The definition of obstreperous” – Karen Dempsey
“My dad ‘adopted’ a one-legged seagull. He’d feed him scraps, and chase away the cat. The bird would sit and wait for dinner. It was in awful shape when it first appeared. Over six months he filled out again and then just disappeared one day” – @sorobotic
“They seem to tolerate us encroaching on their environment and destroying their ecosystem pretty well, so I like that about them” – Gareth McLaughlin
“I saw one eat a pigeon in the Dubh Linn Gardens. Summer 2017” – Sarah Finlay
“We are farmers and live about 60 miles from the east coast, and 70 miles from the west coast. Never see a seagull, yet if you start to plough a field, they will be there within an hour pecking up worms. How do they do this?” – @mackintalkin