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Gulls aloud: why are so many of the seabirds flocking to our cities?

You may have heard more of their shrieks – and perhaps had a sandwich nicked. But the species are in real trouble

Chiara Wilkinson
Written by
Chiara Wilkinson

Humans and gulls go way back. Their cawing used to be comforting: a gentle reminder of fish and chips and suncream and salt-tinged seaside nostalgia. But over the past decade, something changed. That cawing got louder and louder, warping its way into the squabbled soundtrack of our cities. 

Soon, seagulls were hanging out in the park, nesting in windows and stealing chihuahuas from back gardens. They started to swoop and yelp, to drum at pavements with their beaks and stare us down with black empty eyes as we guard our lunches with trepidation. Along with pigeons, rats and wasps, they’re venturing into a very particular clique: the scum of the city.

It’s not just happening in British cities, either. Seagulls have begun nesting in other European metropolises including Rome and Amsterdam, as well as New York and PortlandNo longer symbols of the seaside, seagulls have become city-dwellers: they’ve rebranded themselves as sandwich-stealing pests, and now they’re everywhere. Or are they?

a gull stelaing food
Photograph: Karelian / Shutterstock

The surprising thing is, gulls are actually declining in population. All seven species of gull that regularly breed in the UK are now listed as red or amber status on the official Birds of Conservation Concern list, including the great black-backed gull and herring gull (the most commonly seen species). Herring gulls’ overall numbers have fallen by around 60 percent over the past 25 years. 

Dr Madeleine Goumas is a researcher at the University of Exeter, working on herring gull behaviour and their interactions with humans. ‘Because gulls are moving into cities, and potentially doing better in cities, we’re seeing a lot more of them,’ Goumas says. ‘We’re trying to understand why they’ve been faring so badly in natural habitats, and why urban areas act like a refuge for them.’

It’s an ongoing question for researchers. One theory is that gulls have caught botulism, a disease caught in landfill sites, where they often feed. ‘As their population gets smaller, they’re more vulnerable to predation,’ says Goumas. ‘It’s like a negative feedback loop.’

Herring gulls’ overall numbers have fallen by around 60 percent over the past 25 years 

Another theory is that gulls aren’t faring well in natural areas due to culling and a lack of food sources – with human activity, climate change and unsustainable fishing making it more difficult for gulls to get by and raise their young. 

Luckily, they’ve adapted. Seagulls are generalists and can eat a wide range of food, from small fish, earthworms, clams and mussels, to your Pret baguette. ‘Where they once followed fishing boats looking for easy catches, they’ve now realised that litter and discarded food waste make our towns and city excellent places to find a meal,’ says Jacques Villemot, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

So, while seagulls might seem more visible than ever in our cities, that doesn’t mean there are more of them. In fact, they are in serious trouble. But is that an excuse for them to be aggressive AF? ‘I feel like the [seagulls’] tactic is to sweep,’ says Sorcha Mondon, a jewellery seller from London who’s had her fair share of gull drama. ‘They want to freak you out enough for you to drop your food. Some of them are massive – bigger than small dogs.’

A gull
Photograph: Serene SBS / Shutterstock

According to Goumas, gulls don’t differentiate humans from other species when taking food. ‘They have no regard for humans,’ she says. ‘[But] from what we can ascertain from experiments, it’s actually a very small number of individuals that actually try and take out from people’s hands – this is very risky for them.’ By actively feeding gulls or leaving food waste lying around, gulls will be encouraged to come closer to us – as this creates the perception of a pattern of feeding.

Given how endangered they are, we shouldn’t really view the birds as vermine, say conservationists. ‘It’s not good framing, especially for an animal that’s on the red list of conservation in the UK,’ says Goumas. ‘Urgent action is needed to revive our seas and help our globally important gull colonies and other seabirds recover,’ adds Villemot.

At a time when an unprecedented outbreak of bird flu is taking a fatal toll on gulls across the country, it’s more important than ever to protect the seabird populations we still have. And now they appear to be flocking to our cities, the upshot is that we should be welcoming these birds as our neighbours – even if it means losing the odd lunch.

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