How gulls spurned the seas and got hooked on fast food
Urban gulls must be Ireland’s most hated bird, seen as food thieves and noisy nesters
Common gulls. Illustration: Michael Viney
There she goes, teetering across the pebbles with two boxes of takeaway chips. They spilled out as she screamed and cowered, one gull on her shoulder, another flapping close with outstretched beak.
The scene was in Brighton last summer, on the beach of my childhood ice-creams, and captured for a tabloid front page. But such episodes are old hat now and replicated to some degree from Aberdeen to St Stephen’s Green. A herring gull pictured lifting bags of crisps from a food store on Grafton Street last year was improvising during lockdown.
Seduced from cliffs and the sea in the mid-1900s by burgeoning urban waste and messiness, herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls have switched lives to flat roofs and takeaway food.
At the University of Bristol in 2013, Dr Peter Rock wrote of the exponential growth in the urban gulls of Britain and Ireland, perhaps reaching 500,000 pairs within 10 years. The latest count of herring gulls on Ireland’s coasts and islands, at just over 7,000 pairs, is far more modest but promises to rise –“a welcome relief” to BirdWatch Ireland.
The University of Bristol has been busy at the study of urban gulls. In research published recently in Nature, a team fitted a dozen of Bristol’s lesser black-backs with GPS backpacks and tracked their movements over three (pre-Covid) breeding seasons. They identified three especially fruitful sites for observation on the ground.
With nests less than 10km from the Severn estuary, the birds ignored marine food and were timing their foraging patterns to match the optimal supply of nourishment. In early morning they went to a public park, where joggers trotted past earthworms and insects abroad in the cool, moist turf. The gulls walked and pecked for a natural and healthy breakfast.
Back to school
The next notable destination was a school, where the gulls arrived just before opening. They waited on surrounding rooftops to share playground snacks at first break and gathered “in high numbers” to fight for sandwich leftovers at lunchtime.
The gulls’ marked the opening and closing times of a waste centre, where fresh waste was tipped 15 times a day. At weekends, few bothered turning up either at school or waste centre.
As human seaside pleasure is eased again, and picnics resume in parks, another recent study may prove useful to people sitting down to unwrap their sandwiches and feeling watched by gulls perched nearby.
Researchers at the University of Exeter sought to test “whether urban gull feeding behaviour is influenced by human behavioural cues such as gaze direction”. They measured “the approach time of herring gulls to a food source placed in close proximity to an experimenter who either looked directly at the gull or looked away”.
Attempting the experiment beside 74 seaside gulls, the team found only 26 per cent of them would touch the food and that most approached much more slowly if the experimenter, a young woman, was looking at them. A few dashed in anyway, suggesting that gull food-snatchers are a small, ill-governed minority.
All this ignores the main offence of urban gulls, which is to nest perennially on roofs and wake people up at first light with their piercing calls. The end of this month is when the reoccupation of nests begins, since herring gulls are faithful to their origins, but a Dublin roofer has already complained to Eye on Nature of the mess and noise of gulls that are “everywhere, and I mean everywhere”.
I remember when they weren’t, the birds having caught botulism from Dublin’s rubbish tips in the 1960s. Another population crash about 15 years ago put them on the national red list of protected birds, their population down 90 per cent. They were first recorded nesting on Dublin roofs in 1972 and, as Steve Newton writes in a profile of the herring gull for BirdWatch Ireland, the bird has “rapidly overtaken the magpie as the Irish species most people love to hate”.
Safe nesting on warmer city roofs, free from predators, may have counted even more than the ready urban food supply. Many companies stand ready to fit wire netting or spikes, and Balbriggan in north Dublin has won special derogation from protective prohibition against removing nests or eggs. There will be more calls for culls this year, none of them likely to succeed.
The gulls in my life, watched now from my desk, commute between the strand and a green stripe of hillside where ewes are spaced out. grazing and waiting on the birth of their lambs. The birds are the common gulls of my drawing, smaller than the herring gull and long-winged.
Their little flock glides down among the sheep to search for earthworms. It is all very amicable and bucolic, and far from the world of takeaways and chips.