Seagulls: Characteristics, Behavior and Attacks

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Western gull at Point Lobos, California

Gulls, or colloquially seagulls, are seabirds of the family Laridae in the suborder Lari. They are most closely related to terns and skimmers and distantly related to auks and waders. Gulls have webbed feet and are good swimmers. Diverse and adaptive, they eat almost every thing: worms, crustaceans, chicks, other gull’s chicks, grain crops, dead seals, garbage. They also have large mouths and throats and have been observed eating entire large starfishs in one bite. In 1829, a naturalist clubbed one gull on the head. The bird then proceeded to discourage an entire auk — a foot-long seabird now extinct. An autopsy revealed another auk in its stomach. Gulls are among the few birds that can easily snatch thrown food out of the air.

Gulls are incredibly diverse and adaptive birds, always ready to take advantage of any source of easy food. They push in with the pigeons and pintails whenever someone scatters a handful of potato chips or some other unhealthy snack. Experienced gull feeders, however, simply throw their fare high into the air. The gulls are the only birds capable of snaring a cheese doodle in midair. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, February 5, 2007]

Gulls form same sex partnerships when they can not find opposite sex partners. Up to 15 percent of Western gull pairs are females, who build joint nests and take turns watching over unfertilized eggs and woo each other with gifts of food. Sometimes one member will mate with a male but the female pair will raise the young.

Many species of gull take several years to mature into breeding adults. Fully adult black-headed gulls have deep orange bills and feet, and completely white tails. In colonies, mixed in are younger birds experiencing their first winter. These have paler (almost yellow) bills and feet, and also a thin black band at the tip of their tails.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; MarineBio

Gull Species Confusion

by Nina Baranduin

Different species and subspecies of gulls have many similarities and can be easily confused with one another. Because of hybridization and other factors, the taxonomy of gulls is complicated. herring gulls are one of the most common species. Great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus), are much larger than herring gulls and have a lighter bill and darker mantle. Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) have a dark mantle and yellow legs. Both great and lesser black-backed gulls have occasionally hybridized with herring gulls. [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) are smaller than herring gulls, with yellow legs in adulthood and possessing a bill with a distinct black ring and lacking a red spot. Thayer's gulls (Larus thayeri) are quite similar to herring gulls, but adult Thayer's gulls have dark eyes and much less black coloring under the wingtip. The species status of Thayer's gulls have been questioned. They may be a form of Herring gulls or Iceland gulls (Larus glaucoides).

California gulls (Larus californicus) have yellowish green legs, a black spot in front of the red spot on the bill, and are smaller than herring gulls. Western gulls (Larus occidentalis) are similar in size but have a darker mantle. Glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) are similar in color but somewhat larger in size compared to herring gulls, and have pale gray rather than black wingtips in addition to a dark iris and purplish skin around their eyes. Hybrids between western gulls and glaucous-winged gulls can appear quite like herring gulls, but often with less black wingtips. Mew gulls (Larus canus) are much smaller than herring gulls and have yellow legs and unmarked yellow bills.

Herring Gulls

Herring gulls (Scientific name: Larus argentatus) are among the most commonly seen gulls. Often if you see a sea gull in a coastal area North America, Europe and even Asia chances are is a herring gull or possibly a hybrid or at least a close relative of one. The geographic range of these birds stretches across the northern hemisphere through Alaska, northern Canada, and Russia. Herring gulls are found on both North American coasts, having gradually extended in range down the Atlantic coast. They generally breed in the northern parts of their range and winter in the south along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, and on several Caribbean Islands. [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Herring gulls tend to live and breed in coastal areas and generally only live inland in small numbers and near bodies of water. They can be found near fresh water bodies but are mostly found around saltwater environments. The most important habitat requirements are the nearby presence of a food source, distance from major predators, and shelter from prevailing winds. Herring gulls prefer to breed on flat ground on offshore islands, on the mainland these gulls prefer cliffs, where there is less risk of exposure to predatory mammals. Although herring gulls prefer to nest on rock or sand, highest breeding success has often been observed in birds that nest in vegetated areas. Herring gull foraging habitat is not typically the same as their nesting habitat; in coastal areas herring gulls search for food in the intertidal zone and at sea. Herring gulls are also found in coastal urban areas, nesting on roofs and eating urban refuse. /=\

two herring gulls

Herring gulls are part of a complex of gulls in the Northern Hemisphere, whose species and subspecies classifications have changed over time. Thayer’s gulls were at one time considered a subspecies of Herring gulls. In addition to subspecies, hybrids are known to occur with great black-backed gulls in Canada and with glaucous-winged gulls

Herring gulls live up to 30 years of age, but many die earlier, especially as chicks. Most deaths occur during breeding, when both adults and young are vulnerable. Causes of mortality include injuries, being shot or poisoned by fishermen, ingesting contaminants such as bacteria and lead (especially in the Great Lakes, where many chicks have shown deformities related to toxins), fishing lines and nets, and occasional predation by predators such as owls and foxes. The dangers presented to Herring gulls in the Great Lakes by contaminants have decreased since the 1980s, when contaminant levels began to decline. /=\

Herring Gull Characteristics

Herring gulls are fairly large gulls. They range in weight from 0.8 to 1.3 kilograms (1.8 to 2.9 pounds) and range in length from 56 to 66 centimeters (1.8 to 2.2 feet). Their wingspan ranges from 1.4 to 1.5 meters (4.4 to 5 feet). Males are larger than females. Males range in size from 60 to 66 centimeters (2 to 2.2 feet) in length and one to 1.25 kilograms (2.2 to 2.75 pounds) in weight, while female herring gulls range from 56 to 62 centimeters (1.8 to 2 feet) in length and 0.8t to .980 kilograms (1.8 to 2.2 pounds) in weight.[Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Herring gulls are natatorial (equipped for swimming), Both sexes have similar plumage. According to Animal Diversity Web: Their heads and underparts are white, and they have light gray backs. Herring gulls have yellow bills with a red spot on the lower mandible and pink or flesh-colored legs. Herring gull outermost wing feathers are black and have a white spot. During winters, adult gulls have streaks of brown coloring on their heads. /=\

Herring gulls prefer to drink fresh water, but if no fresh water is available they are able to drink sea water. These birds have glands located over their eyes which excrete salt; this excretion can be seen dripping off herring gull bills. Adult herring gulls have golden eyes surrounded by a yellow-orange ring of skin. Herring gulls take four years to acquire standard adult plumage and are mottled brown during their first four years. The eyes of immature herring gulls are dark brown, rather than golden, and are surrounded by blackish skin, rather than orange-yellow. Their bills are black and their legs are dark gray. /=\

Herring Gull Behavior and Communication

European herring gull

Herring gulls are diurnal (active mainly during the daytime), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), territorial (defend an area within the home range), social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups) and colonial (living together in groups or in close proximity to each other). In terms of home range, herring gulls usually forage within 20 kilometers of their colony but will travel up to 100 kilometers away in , ; this home range is dependent on location of preferred food sources. /=\

Herring gulls are not solitary birds. They prefer to nest in colonies. Regardless, they carefully protect their chosen territory within a colony. Social hierarchies among herring gulls vary; adults are usually dominant over juvenile gulls and, while females prevail regarding choice of nest site, males may dominate females regarding feeding and boundary conflicts. Herring gull pairs return to their same nesting site for so long as the male is alive and has not deserted the female. Herring gull chicks and juveniles “play” by carrying around objects and engaging in tug-of-war games. Herring gulls often develop individual preferences for food and feeding techniques.

Herring gulls sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. They communicate with vision and sound. They also employ duets (joint displays, usually between mates, and usually with highly-coordinated sounds) to communicate. Herring gulls have no song, but have a complex system of anywhere from eight to perhaps 15 calls; two are used by nestlings and another three are used only by breeding adults. Various calls serve to identify returning partners, demonstrate aggression, warn the colony of predators, and to dispute territory with neighboring gulls. When males are disputing territory, they may pull at grass with their beaks as part of their demonstration. Chicks begin making begging calls to demand food upon hatching; the call grows more intense as they grow and by five weeks of age, a chick begs by lifting its head with each peep and holding its head hunched against its body. When chicks are pursued, they emit a shrill waver. The begging call and shrill waver exhibited by chicks are both similar to noises that adult gulls make. Chicks also peck at the red spot on their parent's bills in order to stimulate food regurgitation. /=\

Herring Gull Feeding and Predators

Herring gulls are omnivorous (feed on a variety of plant and animal food of both) prefer animal foods. They are opportunistic predators of marine invertebrates, fishes, insects, other seabirds, other birds, bird eggs, and are opportunistic scavengers of dead animals and garbage. When they are at sea they forage in scattered groups that converge quickly once prey has been located. It is not uncommon to see them following feeding whales or fishing boat nets, eating fish, squid, and zooplankton at the surface. [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

American herring gull eating a crab

Individual specialization in feeding is common, meaning that particular birds or particular groups of birds are adept and gathering a certain kind of food and repeatably obtain it. The type of food consumed often differs based on where birds are located and the time of year. Herring gulls appear to choose foods according to their dietary needs (such as during egg-laying) when sufficiently numerous food sources are available. In Newfoundland, they gulls often eat squid in the summer then change to mussels and refuse when eggs are incubating then switch to capelin (Mallotus villosus) when chicks hatch

Adults herring gulls don’t fear many predators but occasionally are killed by baseball players and more frequently planes. A number of predators feed on herring gull eggs and young including peregrine falcons, bald eagles, gyrfalcons, great horned owls, short-eared owls, common ravens, black-crowned night-herons, great blue herons, northern harriers, domestic dogs, red foxes, gray seals, harbor seals, raccoons, domestic cats and minks. Herring gulls often choose cliff edges and rocky off-shore islands with hiding spots for chicks to deter predators. When a predator is observed or sensed, herring gulls give an alarm call. If the predator gets closer, herring gulls give a warning call and then take flight. Herring gulls mob flying predators by diving and striking the predators with their beaks and feet, and also dive at terrestrial predators, striking them with wings and feet, rather than with beaks. Chicks make shrill wavers when they feel threatened. Their parents respond by attacking the predator while other herring gulls make intense calls described as "long-call notes." [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Herring Gull Mating and Reproduction

Herring gulls are oviparous (young are hatched from eggs) and are iteroparous (offspring are produced in groups multiple times in successive annual or seasonal cycles). They engage in seasonal breeding — usually once a yearly — and breeding season — which includes copulation and nesting lasts from April to June. Herring gulls pair around mid-March and lay eggs by mid-May. The number of eggs laid each season ranges from one to three, with the number of eggs per season averaging around three. Adults breed beginning around four years of age, although breeding for the first time from ages three or five years have been observed [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Herring gulls are monogamous (having one mate at a time) and polygynous (males having more than one female as a mate at one time). Usually they are monogamous, In rare cases of one male and two females occupy a territory and incubating one or two nests. According to Animal Diversity Web: The secondary female rarely achieves breeding success. Pairs are formed on the male's territory or in loafing areas. Males and females choose territory for egg-laying together, once they have paired. Males regurgitate food for females before eggs are laid. Any late arrivals pair only after early-nesting pairs have already begun breeding. Pair bonds are maintained for the life of both partners. If a male fails to provide enough food to the female during egg formation or if the partners fail to synchronize their eggs (leaving eggs unattended and often lost or eaten), the pair may separate. Within the colony, pairs nest as far apart as space allows./=\

There are no displays specific to courtship, but females usually approach males in a hunched posture, producing a begging call. The male responds by assuming an upright posture or mew-calling. Head-tossing occurs repeatedly by both male and female and the male regurgitates food for the female; if she eats it, copulation often happens immediately. Otherwise, the female may walk away and prevent copulation. Males jump on females' backs with wings outspread in order to copulate. Mate-guarding is most intense in the week prior to egg laying. Males whose mates have already laid eggs may attempt to force copulation on neighboring incubating females; no such attempt has ever been observed as successful.

Herring Gull Nesting, Young and Development

American herring gull nesting

The average time in which herring gull young hatch from their eggs is 30 days. During the pre-fertilization stage provisioning and protecting is done by females. During the pre-birth stage provisioning is done by females and protecting is done by males and females. During the pre-weaning stage provisioning and protecting are done by females and males. Pre-independence provisioning is by the female and the male. The average fledging age is six weeks and the age in which they become independent ranges up to 24 week, with the average time to independence being 12 to 15 weeks. On average males and females reach sexual maturity at age four years. [Source: Shane Spencer, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

According to Animal Diversity Web: Females take 4 to six days to lay 3-egg clutches, and the eggs are incubated by both parents for about four weeks. Chicks are able to leave the nest on foot after just one day. Chicks fledge after about six weeks and are fed in the territory where they were born for until about 12 to 15 weeks old. Occasionally, they are cared for by parents off territory for as long as six months. Both male and female parents incubate eggs. The female spends more time incubating than the male does, and incubates at night. The male spends more time away from the nest, procuring food for the female. Many parents remove broken shells once chicks have hatched.

Chicks are semiprecocial at hatching, with gray and black down and open eyes. After one week they are able to run around on their own. Chicks are protected by both parents and, during dangerous weather, are brooded until 10 days of age. Chicks fledge at about six weeks of age and are fed by parents on parental territory until they are 11 to 12 weeks old; so long as chicks continue to beg, they may receive food from parents until about six months of age. Males feed more often before fledging, females feed chicks more after fledging. Studies have found that herring gull parents can feed lead-poisoned chicks, which are generally lighter than normal chicks when studied in the laboratory, enough so that the chicks maintain a close-to-average weight. Chicks are fed regurgitated food that consists of small prey such as small fishes, insects, and earthworms.

Laughing Gulls

Laughing gulls (Scientific name: Larus atricilla) are coastal bird found from Nova Scotia to Venezuela on east coast of the Americas and from southeastern California to western Mexico on the west coast of the Americas and winters as far north as the southern United States. They are is rarely found in land except around the Salton Sea. Laughing Gulls prefer nesting on barrier beaches and estuarine islands with moderate to dense vegetation. [Source: Stephanie Jahnke, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Laughing gull

The average weight of laughing gull adults is 275.6 grams (9.71 ounces). According to Animal Diversity Web: As a juvenile, the Laughing Gull has a complete tail band, gray wash on the nape, dark brown wings, and a brown head and body. During its first winter, the Laughing Gull acquires a slate gray color on its back and sides, but keeps all other characteristics. A second summer bird has a partial hood and some spotting on the tail. As it approaches its second winter, the Laughing Gull looks similar to the second summer bird, except that it lacks a hood, and has gray wash on the sides of its breast. During breeding, the Laughing Gulls' plumage has a black hood, white under-parts, and slate gray wings with black outer primaries. /=\

Laughing Gulls are noisy, aggressive, quarrelsome birds who often steal the prey of other birds. They also feed on the eggs and young of other birds, including those of their own kind. They sense using vision, touch, sound and chemicals usually detected with smell. Laughing gulls are also a very sociable bird that migrate, rest, hunt, and scavenge with other laughing gulls. The birds are named for their call, which sounds like, "Ha ha ha".

Laughing gulls have a highly varied diet and are primarily carnivores and scavengers. In the wild, they eat insects, fish, shellfish, and crabs. They can get food from the water while airborne by either skimming the surface or diving. They are not as skilled at fishing as pelicans and terns and often steal food from these birds. Laughing gulls also gets food from man-made sources such as garbage, sewage, refuse from fishing boats, and anything tossed to them by humans.

Laughing gulls are a colonial breeders living together in groups or in close proximity to each other. They may nest with other gulls or terns. Nests are found primarily along coastal bays, salt marshes, and estuaries. Sometimes they can be found near agricultural and industrial areas. Nests are five centimeters high and eight centimeters wide, and are constructed of sticks and grass. The average number of eggs per season is three and the average time to hatching is 20 days. The eggs are olive-brown eggs with dark brown spots. The birds only have one brood per breeding season. Laughing gulls take 35 days to fledge.

Seagulls, Planes and Humans

Humans have utilized gulls for food and their body parts have been sources of valuable materials. During the late 19th century, along the Atlantic coast, herring gulls were a useful source of eggs and were also pursued for the decorative value of their feathers. At one time, laughing gulls were hunted and killed for their fine plumage which was used by milliners to make hats. Today, gulls contribute to beach sanitation by eating dead fish and trash left behind by humans. In the pursuit of food, gulls sometimes lead fishermen to schools of herring. A study in Murmansk, Russia, found that the diet of urban herring gulls consisted of about 45 percent rat and town animal remains.

feeding frenzy by lesser black-backed gulls

Populations for most gull species seem to be stable and healthy. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List lists herring gulls and laughing gulls as species of “Least Concern” They have no special status according to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Gulls can be pests and a flock of them gave a name to a horrible 80 synth-pop band but the most adverse effects they have on humans are aviation hazards. Laughing gulls are often found near and around airports. Sometimes this can be dangerous not only to the bird, but to the planes trying to land and take off. At the JFK airport in New York, laughing gulls and other birds get sucked into the planes' engines, causing significant damage to the plane. Gulls are involved in approximately 20.3 percent of collisions between aircraft and birds. Collisions between aircraft and birds have caused 159,504 hours of aircraft downtime in a 13-year period in the United States and resulted in economic losses of hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Many methods have been tried to keep gulls away from airports and airspace. Noise cannons, intimidating pictures of predatory owls, and recordings of "distressed gulls," have all been used. On occasion, sharpshooters have been brought in to kill them. In the summer of 1996, JFK’s airport's wildlife biologist had expert trainers fly falcons and hawks at the gulls in an effort to chase the gulls away and not to kill them. /=\

Seagull Pests in the U.K.

Emine Saner wrote in The Guardian: A slight ripple in the wind behind me, the briefest graze of my hair and, within a split second, the ice-cream cone had been snatched from my hand. One second I was holding a mint choc chip, the next I wasn’t. It was so fast, and the raid so precise, I didn’t really see it happen – just a vision of the gull’s tail feathers as it took to the sky. I share my south-coast town with the gulls and you learn to be wary of them. Once, one landed on our table outside a fish and chip shop and made off with half our dinner. They nest noisily on our roof and like to wake us up at 5:00 am every morning; they rip open the rubbish sacks people leave on the streets and creep close on the beach, looking for snacks. [Source: Emine Saner, The Guardian, July 24, 2019]

gull stealing someone's food in Belgium

In June 2019, the Royal Mail told some Cardiff residents that post deliveries could be affected by gull attacks on postal workers. “Our postmen and women can experience difficulties out when delivering or collecting mail due to swooping attacks by seagulls,” residents were told. In Lancashire, a couple reported being kept hostage in their house for days because a pair of gulls – whose chicks had slipped and fallen on to the porch above the front door – would dive-bomb them every time they tried to leave. In 2013, a woman had to have hospital treatment for cuts to her head sustained during an attack by a gull and, in 2002, a man died of a heart attack after being swooped at by the birds in his garden.

Are gulls becoming more aggressive? Steve Portugal, an ecophysiologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, doesn’t think so. “I think it’s more they’re coming into contact with us more,” he says – and when these very rare occurrences do happen, they’re publicised in newspapers and on social media. “Gulls have shifted their distribution and behaviours away from traditional nesting sites, which would have been cliffs and quite isolated areas, and started living in more urban areas because we make it easy for them. It only happens when there are babies involved – they are not randomly attacking people in November, it’s only ever to protect their young.” But does this proximity to people mean they are becoming bolder? “I guess it’s possible,” he says, although he adds that there hasn’t been any research done on this. “What would stop animals attacking us normally is fear, so it’s possible that any animal encountering people more often – urban foxes, for example – would become bolder. It would make sense that, over time, they gradually become more used to people.”

Seagull Attacks on People and Dogs in the U.K.

In 2001, a, 86-year-old woman said she was been driven from her East Sussex home by a vicious seagull. Ananova reportedly Grace Amos is too scared to return to her home after the bird nearly knocked her over and cut her head. The bird and its partner are said to have swooped on visitors to the house before the attack. Lewes District Council said they are "a serious public health issue". Mrs Amos told the Brighton Evening Argus that she was going to collect her pension when she was attacked. "It nearly knocked me over and I had to hang on to the gate to keep my balance. It felt as if someone had thrown a brick at me it was so painful." She was helped to a doctor's surgery and needed stitches in her head, she said, and was now staying with nearby relatives. "The wound was really deep. The whole of the seagull's beak seemed to have gone in my head," Mrs Amos added.

Lewes District Council consulted with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before deciding to hire a private contractor to "despatch" the gulls. Killing the birds or removing them are being considered as options by the council. A spokesman said: "We are not obliged to deal with aggressive birds, but this is an exceptional case, involving an attack on an elderly lady who is now afraid to stay alone in her home. "It is a serious public health issue and we have decided to hire a private contractor to deal with the violent seagulls." [Source: Ananova, July 3, 2001]

In 2019, a chihuahua named Gizmo was taken from a garden on Devon by a swooping seagull. Around the same time there were numerous accounts of other seagull attacks. Some said there had been a sudden change in the birds’ behavior. The Guardian reported: “My partner was in the garden putting the washing out at the time and suddenly, he saw it swoop down,” the dog’s distraught owner told Devon Live. “It carried Gizmo a fair way as we couldn’t see him any more. I have no idea if he was dropped or where he is now.” In 2015, in Cornwall, a yorkshire terrier had to be put down after gulls attacked him, leaving him with serious head wounds. His owner said “it was like a murder scene”. The same year, again in Cornwall, a pet tortoise died after being attacked by gulls. [Source: Emine Saner, The Guardian, July 24, 2019]

Why the Seagulls and Pests and What Can Be Done About It

Late spring and early summer are time of year is when seagulls — herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls that have made towns and cities their home — are at their most aggressive. “Nestlings are becoming fledglings and when they take their first flight, they don’t necessarily fly very well,” says Peter Rock, who has spent years researching urban gull populations. “Often, the adult birds will hit them and drive them to the ground. It’s a bizarre spectacle, but the reason is, when they fly a bit too early, the likelihood is they’ll crash into something and really damage themselves.” The nestlings may end up being pushed down into a garden, to protect them, and if there are lots of shrubs or not enough room “for a run-up and a takeoff, they may be there for a day or two. The parents know their nestling is there and they will look after it.” [Source: Emine Saner, The Guardian, July 24, 2019]

Emine Saner wrote in The Guardian: A lot of effort has gone into raising that chick. “They’re sitting on eggs for a month, and the fledgling period is about six weeks. Then after that, for a week or two, they look after them while they get used to flying. There is an investment of maybe 12 weeks. At this time of year, if something happens to their offspring, they won’t try again, so that means they won’t breed until next year. So the birds are quite fearless in protecting their young.” This will include trying to scare off anything they think may harm it, including people and dogs. “Incidents of gulls attacking dogs are not unknown, but it is rare,” says Rock. “The one thing we need to differentiate between is a real attack and a low pass – a threatening swoop. They will swoop at you, but won’t come any closer than 8-10ft. What they’re trying to do is drive you away from their territory. An attack will always come from behind, they will keep swooping at you until they get the opening to attack.” He recommends anyone being terrorised by gulls to carry a golf umbrella.

At any other time of year, he says, “gulls are not the slightest bit aggressive, unless it’s about competition for food”. It felt pretty aggressive when the gull snatched my ice-cream – a kilo of bird, swooping at 45mph with a wingspan of about 1.5 metres – but Rock says that is merely a question of ownership. “You may have paid the money for it, but that doesn’t mean it’s yours – that’s how the gulls work.” He has seen a gull partly swallow a sardine, only for another to pull it out of its mouth. “You may think it’s your house and you have all the paperwork to prove it, but the fact is, the gulls have settled on your roof, so therefore it’s theirs.”

In the 19th century, there were no gulls in London, says Tim Dee, the wildlife writer and author of Landfill. “Only in the 20th century did gulls begin to come up the Thames. Some people began to feed them – people would come to the riverbank and share their lunch with them.” The Clean Air Act 1956 meant councils stopped burning rubbish, and so landfill sites started to fill up with waste food – this was also the end of rationing and the beginning of our convenient, throwaway culture. The gulls, drawn by easy food, started to move inland. “The two crucial sources of food are the stuff people chuck away in the street, but more substantially, the landfill sites, which peaked in the early 1990s,” says Dee. “This was before we began recycling our food waste. In the 1980s and 1990s, the first gulls in substantial numbers started breeding on rooftops, first of all in seaside towns, but increasingly moving inland.”

They discovered that towns and cities made more hospitable homes than clifftops on islands. “There is mostly not much disturbance,” says Rock. “It’s 4-6C warmer, which means gulls are capable of starting their breeding season earlier than those who breed on islands. We provide them with street lighting, which means they can forage at night as well as during the day.” He has seen birds take a “steam bath” using the emissions from heating flues. “Then, after that, they will find extractor fans blowing out warm air, so they’ll get a blow-dry as well.”

At the last count, in 2004, there were 130,000 herring gull pairs in summer in the U.K., swelling to 730,000 individual birds in winter. They are clever, resilient birds. “Many admire them for their adaptive skills,” says Dee. “Some people hate them and think they’re the new urban pigeons.” Are they a problem? “A lot of people see it that way,” says Rock. “My personal opinion is I wish people would see the decline of some species as a problem.” There is a view that other bird species are being pushed out by gulls, but Rock doesn’t believe this is the case.

Tony Whitehead at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the best solution would be to change our own behaviour. “You can walk down the seafront and you will see people throwing the odd chip, or a bit of sandwich, for a gull. Gulls are quite long-lived birds – up to 30 years – and as soon as they associate humans with food, they won’t distinguish between food that is given and food that is there for the taking. They also learn pretty quickly that if bin bags are left out or aren’t collected, that our streets are pretty good sources of food. If there is a conflict, it’s in the way we deal with food.”

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Jonathan Livingston Seagull is a a bestselling novella written by American author Richard Bach with black-and-white photographs by Russell Munson. Adapted into a film with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond, the story in the book is an allegorical fable about a seagull with a focus on self-realization, personal reflection and freedom. It was first published in 1970 with little advertising or expectations. By the end of 1972 it had sold over a million copies was No.1 on bestseller lists mostly through word of mouth recommendations. [Source: Wikipedia]

"Not a single magazine or newspaper — including The New York Times Book Review — so much as mentioned" the book when it first came out, The Times reported in 1972. Macmillan, the publisher of the book, failed to do any advance publicity for Bach, who personally took out two very small ads in The New York Times Book Review and Publishers Weekly. The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out by the end of 1970. In in 1971 an additional 140,000 copies were printed. In 1972 and 1973, the book topped the Publishers Weekly list of bestselling novels in the United States.

Book sellers didn't know how to classify it. "Some put it under nature, some under religion, some under photography, some under children’s books." Eleanor Friede at Macmillan advised putting “next to the cash register." Several early commentators, emphasizing the first part of the book, cast it as a pioneer of the US self-help and positive thinking movement, epitomised by Norman Vincent Peale and by the New Thought movement. Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the book was "so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it." The book is listed as one of fifty "timeless spiritual classics" in a book by Tom Butler-Bowdon, who noted in 2005 that "it is easy now, thirty-five years on, to overlook the originality of the book's concept, and though some find it rather naïve, in fact it expresses timeless ideas about human potential."

In Part One of the book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is an independent thinker frustrated with the daily squabbles over meager food and sheer survival within his flock of seagulls who have no deeper sense of purpose. Unlike his peers, he is seized with a passion for flight of all kinds, and his soul soars as he aerially experiments and learns more about the nature of his own body and the environment in achieving faster and faster flight. Eventually, his lack of conformity makes him"Outcast" with the flock. Undeterred, Jonathan he explores the joys of challenges of flying at at the end of his life encounters two radiantly-bright seagulls who share his abilities and take him "home" where he will go "higher".

In Part Two, Jonathan is a heaven-like place where a teacher named Sullivan explains that only a few gulls progress to this higher existence, while most live through the same world over and over again. The Elder Gull of the community, Chiang, admits that the place they are in is not heaven, but that heaven is the achieving of perfection itself: an ability beyond any particular time or place. Suddenly, Chiang disappears, then reappears a moment later, displaying his attainment of perfect speed. When Jon begs to learn Chiang's skills, Chiang explains that the secret to true flight is to recognize that one's nature exists across all time and space. Jon begins successfully following Chiang's teachings. One day, Chiang slowly transforms into a blindingly luminous being. In Part Three Jonathan has now amassed a small group of Outcasts as flying students. Fletcher is his the star pupil. One day, Fletcher dies in a flying collision. Awaking in another reality, he hears Jon's voice teasing him that the trick to transcending the limitations of time and space is to take it step by step — not so quickly. Fletcher is resurrected in the very midst of the flabbergasted Flock. Soon, Fletcher has a group of students of his own. He passes on Jon's sentiments that seagulls are limitless ideas of freedom and their bodies nothing more than thought itself.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated May 2023

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