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Aggressive Seagulls Menacing Urban Britain

James Owen
for National Geographic News
January 7, 2003
 
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.

Seagull Heaven

"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."

Two species in particular—herring gulls and black-headed gulls—are flocking inland. Their combined population is growing at a rate of 13 percent every year.

A survey of herring gulls nesting on buildings in Britain and Ireland in 1994 put the total at 16,900 pairs. Experts believe the figure has doubled since.

"In Aberdeen alone there are now 3,500 pairs, and in the Gloucester area I've counted 2,400," said Peter Rock, Europe's leading authority on urban seagulls.

Rock has been monitoring the birds for 20 years. His studies suggest that once they develop a taste for city life they don't want to leave.

"I've found no evidence that urban gulls return to wild colonies," he said. "That's because in the six weeks between hatching and fledging, chicks receive an imprint of what a gull colony is supposed to look like. They always return to rooftops to breed."

Better Breeding Success

Another factor contributing to the problem is the birds' increased breeding success in cities.

"In Bristol, herring gulls breed at a rate of two to three chicks per pair annually, whereas productivity in wild colonies can be as low as 0.1 chicks per pair," said Rock. "While roofs aren't very different from cliff-top nesting sites, there are no predators and disturbance is minimal."

The increased reproductive success makes the job of trying to control their numbers all the more difficult. Local authorities are getting increasingly desperate judging by some of the control methods proposed.

Suggested remedies include using slingshots and dried peas to drive the birds off, luring them away from urban centers by towing garbage-filled barges out to sea, frightening the gulls away using fake distress calls or litter bags with wasp-like 'warning' stripes, feeding them contraceptive pills, and using gels to make nesting sites slippery. All have proved either impractical or unsuccessful.

Bringing in winged predators such as hawks may work for a short period, but the effect soon wears off. "Some people tried flying Harris hawks in Bath," said Burt. "The trouble was they were lucky to get the birds back alive once the gulls had finished with them."

The ultimate weapon of course is culling. But this doesn't work, either, said Rock.

"It just opens up an opportunity for younger birds to breed as there are no adults to drive them away," he said.

Instead, local authorities have turned their attention to educating the public about ways to make urban areas less attractive to the birds. For instance, South Hams District Council in the county of Devon recently set up a special web site that provides helpful advice, such as how to keep garbage secure from scavenging gulls.

But Rock says a national seagull strategy is the only hope of a lasting solution. Until one is found, city dwellers can expect more close encounters of the bird kind.

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