Gulls: love ’em or hate ’em?
Often demonised as a seaside menace, our British gull breeds have a certain beauty and many fans, asserts
Often demonised as a seaside menace, British gull breeds have a certain beauty and many fans, asserts Marianne Taylor
As a child, I knew that my home town of Hastings was really two towns, one on top of the other. You might not notice that from ground level, but we lived in a very tall, thin house that looked down on the rest. From our highest window, I could see that there, perched on our rooftops, was the other town —that of the gulls.
so fierce-faced, yet so beautiful as they sailed by on their silver, black-tipped wings, these herring gulls captivated me. Their lives—their community—seemed not so different from ours. They built their nests in safe corners, tucked between chimney pots. They headed seawards to find food and returned to a warm greeting from their partners. They had neighbourly squabbles, but rose up as one when alarmed by the crack and boom of the maroon rockets that summon lifeboat volunteers to the beach.
Throughout the summer, they patiently nurtured their young, which matured from sweet-voiced, fluffy bundles to sore-throated, scruffy and relentlessly demanding adolescents. Often, they would wake me with their cackles and yelps, their big webbed feet slapping on the skylight roof above me as they strutted about, but I had only affection and respect for them.
I’d watch them down on the beach, too, always curious, always hungry, always investigating. They’d pick up whelks and mussels, fly high and drop them onto rocks to break them. They would swarm around the incoming fishing boats and fishermen, who threw buckets of scraps for them. They’d sit on balconies and tap on apartment windows, rummage through the strandline and loiter near the day-trippers, ready to snatch a dropped chip or fallen ice cream. Clever as crows, they missed not a single trick.
The herring gulls of Hastings are much vilified, as in seaside towns everywhere. They rip open bin bags and scatter the contents far and wide and their guano streaks the streets and cars. I saw one steal a beautiful lemon sole from a seafront fishmonger’s display. The pair nesting on our roof would divebomb us and the family cats.
They’re even worse in some other towns. In St Ives, Cornwall, they’ll swoop in and snatch your pasty from your hand even as you lift it to your mouth. Regularly, angry letters in local newspapers call for a cull. These birds are hated and seen as dangerous vermin, worse than rats.
The herring gull is our most familiar gull species, but five more are widespread breeding birds in Britain. Down by the boats on Hastings beach, terrifyingly enormous, hatchet-billed great black-backed gulls scavenge alongside the herring gulls, easily dominating their smaller relatives. You might also find lesser black-backed gulls, like dark, slim herring gulls with yellow legs rather than pink. These three are our ‘big gulls’— a few others from overseas are regular visitors, but don’t (yet) hang around to breed.
The other three are smaller and far more elegant. To find black-headed gulls, head to the town park in winter and watch them deftly catching bread crusts thrown to the ducks. They don’t have dark heads then— that’s their summer attire. There might be some common gulls among them, which are like miniature herring gulls, but with big dark eyes, giving them gentle faces, and a hood of grey speckles.
In spring, both species have a partial moult to breeding plumage. The common gulls take off their hoods, revealing a snowy head, and black-headed gulls put theirs on, although their hoods aren’t actually black, but chocolate brown. Both then leave for their marshland and riverside breeding grounds.
You won’t find kittiwakes inland. They nest on towering northern sea cliffs, alongside other seabirds, in vast colonies. They’re achingly pretty and graceful, with a terrible, gargling shriek of a voice. The blast of sea air, the dizzying sight of a sky packed with swirling avian shapes and the din of 1,000 kittiwakes incessantly yelling their own name: these elements make up the sensory assault of a seabird city, one of the true wild marvels of the British Isles.
When not breeding, kittiwakes wander the ocean—they’re the truest ‘seagulls’ of all.
For now, however, leave the coast behind and head for your nearest rubbish tip. It might not be the most enchanting place to birdwatch, but it’s where another fascinating species may be found. This is the larophile or ‘guller’. At first glance, he looks like any other birdwatcher, but, long after others have grown bored and left, the larophile is still there, taking photograph after photograph and noting everything down. He’s the spiritual adversary of the seaside-town seagull-hater—the very word seagull, in all its casual imprecision, is like a knife to his heart.
Other bird families don’t have super-fans in the way that gulls do. The fascination lies in their complexity and individual variety. Large gulls take four years to reach adult plumage. Younger birds exhibit a great array of intermediate plumages and their bills, legs and eyes also gradually change with age.
Every individual is unique, even within the same species, and there should be at least six species to sort through—hopefully more and perhaps a rarity. A caspian gull from Asia, a glaucous gull from Iceland, a ringbilled gull from America? All very possible almost anywhere in Britain. Occasionally, a lucky guller finds a species new to Britain and enters the annals of larophile legend.
Perhaps gulls are, in fact, as loved as they are hated. However, to understand properly their place in our land, we need to put passion aside and turn to science. Many different
surveys of wild-bird abundance are carried out by the BTO and other bodies, which reveal when a bird species is declining fast and should become a conservation priority.
One of those red-listed species is the herring gull, that demonised seaside menace. Tell this to the average Hastings resident and they’ll laugh in your face. They’ll say that it’s rubbish—there are clearly more seagulls now than ever and the council needs to do something about them.
In a way, they’re right. Herring gulls are doing quite well in cities and towns, but that’s a drop in the ocean. On our wilder coasts, they’re faring badly and our other gulls are also in trouble. Overfishing and reduced discards from a declining fishing industry are the main problems, but nest predation by mink and diseases such as botulism, spread through decaying matter on landfill sites, are also implicated. Urban gulls are bucking the trend, but not nearly enough to assuage the concern.
‘Well, who cares?’ the gull-hater might grump. We all should. Gulls provide visual evidence of the health of our seas and coasts and, as part of Nature’s clean-up crew, they are needed. They may be uninvited guests in our towns, we might see them as no more than loud-mouthed feathered yobs, but, in truth, they’re clever, inventive, deeply familyminded and (in their own particular way) very beautiful wild birds and it’s us who have moved in on their turf. Now, we need to learn to share and although you don’t have to go full larophile, a little casual gullwatching can spark a whole lot of love.
Preceding pages: Mine! Mine! Mine! The fisherman’s escort. Top left: Lesser blackbacked gull. Top right: Black-headed gull in summer plumage. Left: Seagulls aren’t fussy about where their food comes from
Seagulls worthy of the name: kittiwakes join huge seabird colonies on northern cliffs to breed, but cruise the oceans the rest of the year