Seagulls – are they trying to tell us something?

 

Seagulls were once viewed as beautiful, elegant and free spirited. They are part of the natural experience of our shoreline and those of us not lucky enough to live by the sea, find their sound incredibly evocative of childhood seaside holidays, bucket and spade in hand.

 

Now they are increasingly seen as the enemy as they steal food and drop rubbish. People in the countryside are used to the phenomenon of foxes and wild animals stealing and attacking but it is a fairly new sensation for seaside dwellers and increasingly those living further inland.

But aren’t seagulls just telling us something about our own behaviour?

 

It could be argued that gulls are just trying to eat, to raise their young, and it isn’t their fault that they cannot do that in a way which would be described as natural, anymore. They make the most of the environment they live in and do a very good job at it.

 

If we don’t want gulls in our towns and villages then maybe we are going to have to change how we behave.

Their natural food sources are shellfish and fish and they used to scavenge for food behind fishing trawlers but over the last 30 years they’ve moved inland.

 

Why? There are fewer trawlers with their crews throwing waste offal overboard – which the gulls would once snap up. Also they have discovered a plentiful supply of food from litter in towns and on landfill sites

 

The situation got so out of hand that in 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron called for a discussion on managing the birds. The government set aside £250,000 for such work following representations from politicians in Bath, a town particularly affected by gulls. However, this was scrapped three months later as part of cost saving measures by Defra.

Even though they are considered to be a pest, seagulls are under threat. Herring gull numbers are down 40-50% since 1970 and are on the RSPB and British Trust for Ornithology’s Red List of birds are most in need of help. The other species to be found in Britain, the lesser black-backed gull and the black-headed gull are also declining.

 

 

So why should we look at seagulls in a new light?

 

  • Seagulls learn, remember and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface. Their intelligence is clearly demonstrated by a range of different feeding behaviours, such as dropping hard-shelled molluscs onto rocks so that they break open and eat them. Most of us have seen them following ploughs in fields where they know worms and other food sources will be plentiful

  • Their ability to steal food is a sure sign of their intelligence; surely birds that have learned to open plastic bin bags come from a long line of survivors. They’ve learned how to do it by watching people and now know how to exploit food resources.
  • And isn’t it mainly our fault? Eating chips, pasties and ice cream isn’t natural gull behaviour – these birds have simply learned to take advantage of unsuspecting holidaymakers, just as they have learned to forage on landfill sites further inland, making the best of our modern wasteful habits. Humans created the throwaway society – and the gulls are simply grabbing a free meal whenever they can

 

  • Some controversial methods to combat problems associated with gulls have been used in a number of Cornish coastal towns. These methods include removing eggs from nests and actively destroying nests before gulls have a chance to lay eggs but proper management of food waste has been cited as a way of dealing with the issue in a more humane way. Changes in refuse management at landfill sites are already having effects on the birds’ foraging behaviour. Some councils are helping by providing gull-proof bags and bins and demanding that people do not feed the birds, very welcome as we don’t want food waste littering our streets.

  • Seagulls are attentive and caring parents. The male and female pair for life and they take turns incubating the eggs, and feeding and protecting the chicks

 

  • They look good! Popular evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote that a gull’s wing was about as near as nature ever gets to perfection. He said it was a fairly good argument for intelligent design, so well suited to its purpose did it appear. And while the aerodynamic form of a gull’s wing is of course a product of natural selection, it is indeed hard to imagine anyone creating anything much better. Just watch a gull soaring gracefully above the quayside!

Little known fact!

Seagulls can drink both fresh and salt water. Most animals are unable to do this, but seagulls have a special pair of glands right above their eyes which is specifically designed to flush the salt from their systems through openings in the bill.


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