Things that I have seen herring gulls do:
- Dance on a patch of muddy ground to ‘bring up the worms’
- Slide down a pitched roof, then flutter up to the top and slide down again, like a child in a playground.
- Swoop over the shoulder of a two year-old and take the ball of ice cream out of the cone without a sound.
- Feed their fluffy youngsters on the flat roof of Dorset County Hospital, where they nested as if it was a shingle beach.
- Fight off all comers on a landfill site as they dive for the tastiest morsels
- Sit on top of a pole at a popular beach in Jersey, waiting for the café owner with the water pistol to disappear before descending onto some abandoned chips
The sound of their wailing is really the sound of the seaside to me, although they are just as often found inland now – when I wake up in Dorchester, the first thing I hear are the gulls on the roofs behind, and they were a familiar reveille in Islington too.
From the amount of opprobrium that these birds get, you would think that they were a rapidly increasing pest, but in fact they are on the Red List for British Birds, as both their breeding and non-breeding populations are decreasing and have done so since the early 1970s when the first census was taken. Since then, numbers across the whole of the UK and Ireland have fallen by a half to two thirds.
The reasons for this are complex and varied. Herring gulls have, as noted above, often scavenged at landfill sites, but increasingly the organic material is used for biofuels, or buried immediately, reducing the availability of food. On the other hand, these sites are seen as harbourers of Clostridium botulinum, botulism to you and me – this can be fatal to anyone who ingests enough of it, including gulls. I remember that when I lived on the River Tay in Dundee, some tins of preserved meat were washed overboard from a ship, and they became contaminated with the botulinum bacteria – herring gulls were literally falling dead from the sky. Reductions in by-catch from fishing boats has also had an effect, and our old friend the mink can be a significant predator of chicks in some areas. No wonder the gulls are moving into urban areas, where there are plenty of messy people throwing their Kentucky Fried Chicken remains on the ground (although it’s fair to say that it’s a rare rubbish bin that is gull-proof, these being adaptable and intelligent birds). In spite of their Red List status, 16,000 gulls were culled as a ‘nuisance’ between 2013 and 2018. We clearly need to find a better way to live alongside these birds.
Herring gulls are not endangered in Europe as a whole, where they have a population of over 1 million and an extremely large range. Still, something is going on here in the UK which is not favourable to these big, beefy gulls, and what affects them is likely to affect other coastal birds who are less adaptable. And so, it’s something to be lamented. It would be yet another loss if their calls were not heard above our rooftops. They are the quintessential ‘seagull’, the backdrop to any number of radio programmes about the seaside, including Desert Island discs.
Am I the only one who finds that the hairs stand up on the back of their necks when they hear the herring gull’s ‘long call’ (recording by Irish Wildlife Sounds, made in Barleycove, County Cork, Ireland).
And this is the begging call of a juvenile – it is surprisingly high-pitched, and I’ve found myself turning round to identify the caller on more than one occasion, only to realise that it’s coming from a big bruiser of a young gull (recording also from Irish Wildlife Sounds)
And finally, here’s a story by Liz Humphreys, Principle Ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). She is monitoring kittiwakes, but her task involved tiptoeing her way through a gull colony that included herring gulls. Here’s what she says in ‘Into the Red’ by Kit Jewitt and Mike Toms.
“I’d give myself a second to brace myself for the welcoming committee and then step into the fury.
I would see the gull chicks fleeing in panic, diving into the vegetation and takin gcover behind rocks. Carefully picking my way through, I then noticed the speckled fluffy behinds of small gull chicks poling out from the plentiful rabbit – and sometimes puffin – burrows. I would pause, even in the mayhem, to marvel at this comical sight of leopard-skinned balls tucked away in the undergrowth. Clearly they were working on the principle that if they couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see them. Meanwhile the adults were alarming from the skies, getting increasingly agitated at my presence. ”
Herring gulls clearly just want to live their lives, which are so intertwined with ours. I remember staying at a chalet in Lochinver in Scotland. Clearly, one of the local gulls had been fed by previous visitors, because s/he would stand on the hand rail overlooking the kitchen and glare in, occasionally shuffling from foot to foot. We tried to ignore that pale-eyed stare, but in the morning, just at first light (which comes very early in Northern Scotland in June) there was a sharp rat-tat-tatting at the glass door. We woke with a start, and there was the gull, ready for breakfast. Eventually we came to an agreement – we would leave out something when we went to bed, and the gull would feed and then go off to pursue more appropriate avian pursuits. These birds should not be underestimated, and we will need to learn to live with them.