On the first truly frosty day this winter, I headed through Coldfall Wood to the playing fields beyond. I normally view this as a rather bleak area, with little wildlife activity, but my assumptions were challenged by a flock of Black-headed Gulls marching back and forth between the goal-posts, and hammering into the frozen ground in search of worms and grubs. Every few minutes they took flight, disturbed by an eager dog or a intrepid jogger.
Normally when I see Black-headed Gulls, they are skirmishing above a pond or some other water body. Last week, for example, I watched them on the Boating Lake at Hampstead Heath. They were in an argumentative mood, snatching bread from the Coots, who are no mean pugilists themselves. They landed on the backs of Mallards to tear the crusts from their beaks, and then proceeded to mug one another. All the time they yelled at one another, shrieking and carrying-on. Their Latin name, Chroicocephalus ridibundus, means ‘Laughing Gull’, although ‘Quarrelling Gull’ might be a better title.
Here on the frozen football field they were much more subdued, however. They quartered the ground methodically, marching back and forth in little groups. Many of the Black-headed Gulls that we see at this time of year are not from the British population, which numbers 140,000 breeding pairs but from the over 2 million birds who arrive when the winter comes. Ringing studies have shown that the migrant birds come from all over Europe, from Finland to Switzerland. Birds are often loyal to their chosen wintering grounds – one bird who overwintered as a juvenile in Molesey in 1936 was ringed, and was subsequently recovered in the same area nineteen years later.
‘Black-headed Gull’ is something of a misnomer, of course. For most of the year, the birds have just a couple of tiny crescent of dark feathers on their heads. Even in summer plumage, their heads are chocolate brown, not black.
Black-headed Gulls, like so many urban birds, are opportunists. They weren’t spotted in London in large numbers until the severe winters of 1880/81, when the Thames started to freeze. Initially, the birds were often shot, but by 1892 the powers-that-be decided that having people discharging firearms around the capital was probably not a good idea. Londoners being Londoners, folk took to feeding the gulls instead, and one chap was noted for selling sprats to feed to the birds.As the years went on, the birds advanced up the Thames, and found much to approve of when they reached St James’s Park. There were plenty of handouts during the day, and the birds learned to roost in the trees during the night, the first time that such behaviour had been noted. They also discovered the great reservoirs of London, and used them as roosts. They fed not only on boating lakes and in parks, but at sewage farms, landfill sites and open fields, where they can often, to this day, be seen following the tractors as they plough. The flash of their silver-white wings against the brown earth makes me think of kinder days, when there was more left over for our fellow creatures.
These days, Black-headed Gulls nationally have an Amber conservation status, a result of a fall in population of 49 percent over the past twenty-five years. This may be due to the closure of the landfill sites which used to provide them with so much food, and may also be caused by the effects of chemical pollutants which reduce their breeding success.Although the status of these gulls is far from clear, their eggs are still much sought-after by chefs. Traditionally, they are eaten hard-boiled with celery salt, but Le Gavroche offered them in a dish described as Lightly Seasoned Brown Crab with Gull Egg, Peach and New Season Fresh Almonds last year. To collect the eggs a licence is needed, and these are generally only given to people with ‘traditional claims’ – often those who work on large estates which include Black-headed Gull breeding colonies . The Macmillan Cancer Support charity runs a ‘Gulls’ Eggs City Luncheon‘ in the Merchant Taylor’s Hall for City professionals every year to raise funds. While the collectors claim that this is a ‘sustainable practice’ it can surely only put further stress on birds who are already, by their declining numbers, showing that they need to be helped rather than exploited. However, with the eggs being sold for 5.99 GBP each last year, there must be a very lucrative market for them. London Fine Foods describes these eggs as ‘a joy to experience’. Personally, I’d rather experience the joy of one of these: