British Wildlife of the Week
Directly above me, as I write this at my desk, there is a herring gull nest. I can’t see it, of course, because it’s on the roof created by the bay windows of my flat as they jut out slightly from the building. But I saw the parent birds flying back and forth to the site for several days, bringing nesting material, and from across the street, I can just about see an adult hunkered down on the nest.
We have a tendency to lump all of our gull species together. But, in fact, we have seven regular breeding species, and we’re visited by about a dozen more. The herring gull is one of the most common. It is a large, quarrelsome, assertive bird – a predator, scavenger, and pirate all rolled into one.
Although the raucous call of the herring gull is a familiar sound at the seaside, many no longer live by the sea at all and are now equally at home on school playing fields or in city squares as they are by the coast. Intelligent and adaptable, gulls have learned to raid bins, steal chips from the unwary, and even snatch entire ice creams directly from people’s hands. But before the Second World War, urban gulls were largely unknown. So what made these coastal scavengers move inland? The answer is rubbish – or, more accurately, the ways in which we dispose of it.
In the early 20th century, most household rubbish was burned, which didn’t provide any food for gulls. But the Clean Air Act of 1956 made it illegal to burn refuse at landfills. Though this shift from burning to depositing waste put an end to the terrible smog that blighted London and other towns and cities in the post-war years, it also inadvertently provided a glut of food for herring gulls and their relatives, and their numbers rocketed.
Moving inland also gave gulls more nesting sites. Office blocks, warehouses and other buildings are basically artificial cliffs to these birds. Not only are they almost predator- and disturbance-free, they offer excellent shelter and ample places to raise chicks. In addition, our increasingly throwaway society (and messy pavements) provides these birds with a varied menu, freely available and always conveniently close by. These new scavenging opportunities are so abundant that competition for food is less serious and the need to travel long distances less pressing. And then there’s the fact that cities are, on average, a couple of degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. All of these factors mean that urban gulls experience a significantly higher breeding success than those living in more ‘natural’ conditions along the coastline.
Many people, it is fair to say, find it hard to like gulls. It’s not too hard to understand why. There can’t be many of us who haven’t, at one point or another, been harassed by these brash birds swooping around our heads as we attempted to enjoy some chips or ice cream by the seaside. They can also damage buildings and rack up car-washing and window-cleaning bills with their droppings, and even cause sleep deprivation due to their noise, especially during the breeding season. As such, gulls have long had a bad press, with herring gulls, in particular, attracting people’s ire. Papers often run stories about these birds ‘terrorising’ innocent holidaymakers, demonising them with adjectives such as greedy, ravenous and even murderous.
But some gull species, including the herring gull, are in trouble. Although city-dwelling herring gulls are certainly faring better than their rural and coastline cousins, the species as a whole has suffered considerable declines in the past 25 years or so. Colonies all around the UK are shrinking. Between 2000 and 2013, the British breeding population fell by 30%. Over half of the remaining population is now confined to fewer than 10 sites. Their numbers are thought to be at their lowest since counts began in the late 1960s and the species is now on the Red List of birds under threat in Britain.
Noisy and messy, gulls are unpopular with many people, but they are simply taking advantage of the year-round buffet our growing population carelessly provides for them. Rather than being condemned, they should be admired for their resourcefulness. I, for one, am hopeful that the parents on the nest two metres above my head will be successful this year.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be going from one of our most disliked seabirds to one of our most loved – the charismatic and clown-like puffin.