I like seagulls! But I know that Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) are not universally loved. They are a bit like marmite; love them or hate them! Like us, their world suddenly changed on the 23 March 2020, and they had to adjust to a new way of living. In this blog, I discuss media reports of them becoming more aggressive – I actually think the reverse is true – and how they are adapting to a world without free lunches!
It is probably worth pointing out at this stage, that I am only talking about Herring gulls (above). Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) (see below) also nest in some seaside towns now, but they are paragons of good behaviour: they never beg or steal! So when I refer to seagulls; I am taking about Herring gulls.
As someone who lives in a seaside town, I enjoy hearing the raucous calls of Herring gulls, and despite their sometimes poor behaviour, I enjoy seeing them strutting around. Whatever you may think about them, they certainly have attitude! And our British seagulls in particular. As someone who has also spent a lot of time in a Spanish seaside town (in Galicia) I am amazed by how much more assertive – some might even say aggressive – our British Herring gulls are!
Herring gulls generally get a bad press in Britain. There are regularly articles in the newspapers about seagulls terrorizing people at the seaside. However, I like to think of them as football supporters. The majority of them are well behaved – even on away matches – but a small proportion bring the whole lot into disrepute! Stealing pasties out of the hands of tiny children is inexcusable behavior. So is swooping down and bashing someone on the head so that they will drop their ice cream! But like I say, this is only a small minority of birds. They learn this behaviour – perhaps from their parents – and become specialists at particular forms of mugging!
Putting the poor behaviour to one side, most seagulls are quite well behaved, and although they are partial to a chip or two, do not, in my experience, unduly intimidate holiday makers into parting with their ‘take aways’. Indeed, many people really enjoy feeding seagulls, and well-meaning notices like the one below, put up by the council, are regularly ignored.
Just lately, there have been a number of articles about seagulls behaving badly during the lockdown. For example:
“Coronavirus lockdown: Gulls ‘aggressive’ over lack of food“, reported BBC News 31 March 2020.
“Desperate seagulls turn nasty after lockdown hits treats“, according to The Times on 1 April 2020.)
“Beware hungry seagulls during lockdown, Yorkshire residents told“, warned the Guardian on 2 April 2020)
The general idea is that seagulls are supposed to be behaving more aggressively than usual. Once again, as someone who has taken his daily walk around the harbour – in Scarborough – every day, I have seen no sign of this. In fact, the reverse is probably true. Without the sight of thousands of people walking about carrying food and eating outdoors, the seagulls have no-one to harass! Studies have shown that seagulls are more likely to be attracted to food if they have seen it handled by humans: “gulls are more likely to approach food that they have seen people drop or put down” according to Dr Laura Kelley of The University of Exeter.
Perhaps there were instances of aggressive behaviour early on during the lockdown, but I think the seagulls have got used to the new normal, and to some extent have started to look elsewhere for food. There is still some fishing going on, I think, so piscine snacks are still available for the lucky few. Rubbish bins are still being raided, as usual, but some gulls have probably left town to forage elsewhere.
Another concern that has been raised during this period of lockdown, is that more seagulls will be able to nest, undisturbed on roofs. Herring gulls are regularly controlled by most town councils, by removing eggs and nests from people’s roofs, but they are not carrying out this service at present. This is a somewhat controversial practice: for the RSPB position, see here.
“FLOCKDOWN!We’re facing a seagull apocalypse as lockdown cripples pest control” screamed the Sun on 1 May 2020.
Although not all seagull nests are removed from urban roofs each year, many are missed or just too difficult to access. However, although I do not think it is an ‘apocalypse’ as the Sun puts it, I suspect that urban nesting will increase, and we can expect to see more seagulls later in the year.
Nevertheless, like them or loathe them, seagulls are simply taking advantage of the resources we provide for them. If we disposed of our waste more carefully they would not be such a nuisance. To be fair, councils have done a great deal, such as providing ‘gull-proof’ waste containers, but not everyone uses them. I regularly see Herring gulls pulling apart flimsy plastic bags – totally inadequate protection – which have been left on the pavement, spilling the contents down the street. I don’t blame the seagulls, I blame the person who left the bag!
In many ways, seagulls are just like us humans, intelligent, resourceful and adaptable; and unlike millions of other species on the planet which we have pushed to one side – or driven to extinction, they have found a way to cope with us! So we need to find a way to live with them, to limit their unpleasant and aggressive behaviour, and I would argue, to admire and enjoy this magnificent sea bird .
For more on Herring Gulls see here: Your Awesome Neighbourhood Herring Gull (And Its Many Cousins). Scientific American.
I am an entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.