Gulls: love ’em or hate ’em?

Of­ten de­monised as a sea­side men­ace, our Bri­tish gull breeds have a cer­tain beauty and many fans, as­serts

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Mar­i­anne Tay­lor

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

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