for National Geographic News
Soaring seagull populations are proving a serious headache in urban Britain. Noise, mess, and the threat of physical attack have prompted a range of measures aimed at repelling the winged invaders. But as efforts to curb them fail, the gulls get ever more aggressive.
The last two summers have seen a spate of seagull-related incidents.
An 80-year-old Welshman had a fatal heart attack after being swooped on by the birds. In southwest England, a woman was rushed to the hospital with deep beak wounds to her head, and a pet dog was pecked to death. A preschool in Scotland had to hire falconers armed with hawks to safeguard its children.
Across Britain these apparent outbreaks of bird rage are on the increase. London postmen refused to deliver mail to a usually quiet street following attacks by what one resident described as a "slightly psycho herring gull."
Yet these aerial assaults are not the main problem posed by the burgeoning gull population.
"Complaints include gulls defecating on pedestrians and cars, hotel guests being kept awake at night, and workmen being harassed on roofs," said Steve Burt, pest control supervisor for the city of Bath, in the county of Somerset. "We also have a problem with young birds dropping off buildings into people's gardens."
Conservationists say the problem is partly the result of human actions. According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Europe's largest wildlife conservation charity, the loss of cliff-top breeding sites to coastal development and depleted fish stocks at sea are propelling the inland migration.
"Heaven for a gull is any place with lots of open-top litter bins, flat roofs on which to nest, and tourists feeding you in summer," said Grahame Madge, RSPB spokesperson.
And with so many gulls living next to humans, the two are bound to come into occasional conflict.
"Seagulls are very territorial and protective of their young," said Madge. "Most incidents occur during the summer breeding season when fledglings leave their nests but are still unable to fly. If someone gets too close, the parents will defend their young. The intention is not to strike people, but deter them from coming nearer."
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