Attack of the killer seagulls
They have always brought charm to the British coast, but now our sea
birds have developed a taste for urban living, and are making their
presence felt in a scary and dangerous way. Julia Stuart risks life and
limb to investigate
12 January 2004
The stake-out begins. On the roof of an office building in Bristol,
Peter Rock sets up his telescope between sludgy rain pools filled with
dark-green pigeon poo, and trains it on a bin on the pavement below.
Standing on top of the bin, its beak hanging down into its contents, is
a large, cocksure seagull taking a gluttonous interest in a packet of
Rock, a gull consultant, knows the bird's ring number without even
looking. For the last two years, it has been claiming the bin as its
turf. At this time of year, it shouldn't even be in this country, let
alone intimidating litter-conscious pedestrians in Bristol. Ordinarily,
it would be kicking up its feet on a sunny coastline in Spain, Portugal
or Morocco; were it not for the lure of a better life in urban Britain.
The bin king is not alone. Up to 25 per cent of city-dwelling lesser
black-backed gulls are now shunning migration for a winter in Britain,
firing residents and buildings with their trademark black and white
droppings. The numbers of urban gulls - the majority of which are
lesser black-backed and herring - are on a dramatic rise. Rock
estimates that at the end of last year's breeding season, there were
around 500,000, a 10-fold increase in the last nine years. In another
four, he predicts, the figure will have increased by 50 per cent.
Anyone who thinks that this isn't a problem should inspect Rock's
scalp. "I used to get hit quite a lot, about six or seven times in the
breeding season. I mean serious hits. Blood. It's always from behind
with their claws. Don't think it doesn't hurt. They weigh a kilo and
are flying at 40mph. Do bear in mind that the first birds you see being
seriously aggressive in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds are gulls," says
Rock, 52, Europe's leading expert on urban gulls, who has been studying
them since 1980.
The first warning that you may be in for a Tippi Hedren experience is
aural. If you fail to clear off after the ominous "gagaga" call, you
will be subjected to a low pass. Their next intimidation tactic will be
to drop the contents of their bowels with the accuracy of a
stealth-bomber. They will probably also vomit. "If you don't take the
hint then, the last phase is the full-on attack," says Rock, who has
witnessed three people being felled to the pavement in Bristol, which
has one of the highest urban sea colonies in England.
If you are just knocked to the ground, you can count yourself lucky. In
July last year, the worse month for assaults, since adult birds are
protecting their offspring, Marie Munro ended up in hospital after
weeks of intimidation by the same bird. Fed up with being stalked
whenever she left her home in Weymouth, Dorset, she set off a personal
alarm. The gull then started periodically dive-bombing her. After
trailing her husband, and then attacking the couple in their back
garden, the climax of its campaign of terror was a dive into Mrs
Munro's face. She staggered back and fell, splitting a bone the length
of her foot and tearing her tendons.
In July the previous year, Wilfred Roby, 80, a retired ambulance
driver, died after an attack. He was clearing birds' mess from the roof
of his garage in Benllech, on Anglesey, when a group of herring gulls
began swooping on him. While trying to fight them off with his hands,
he lost his balance and fell from the wall on which he was standing. By
the time neighbours had reached him, he was dead. He is believed to
have died from a heart attack. That summer, a worker at Western General
Hospital, Edinburgh, needed emergency treatment after a dive-bombing
seagull, nesting in the roof, floored him.
Seagulls have also caused a number of deaths in the sky. According to
worldwide figures supplied by America's Federal Aviation Administration
Wildlife Strike Database, 11 people were killed between 1912 and 1999
in plane accidents involving gulls. Three of the deaths took place in
Britain. Most of the accidents occurred when the birds hit the
windshield or got stuck in the engine. In the same period, 55 aircrafts
were destroyed, injuring 28 people.
In Britain, the seagull population increased dramatically following the
1956 Clean Air Act, which prevented rubbish being burnt on tips and
thus providing gulls with an unlimited food source. They outgrew their
natural colonies and began nesting in towns and cities. With no
predators, plenty of food, street lighting that enabled them to feed at
night, and an ambient temperature two to three degrees higher than the
surrounding countryside (which gave them a head start in breeding),
they flourished. Bristol's first breeding pair arrived in 1972. There
are now around 1,800 pairs.
Seagulls are now multiplying more successfully in towns than they do in
the wild. Those studied by Rock in the Severn estuary region are
raising two or three chicks per pair a year. However, on Skomer Island,
a reserve off Pembrokeshire with a large gull colony of about 17,000
pairs, their breeding success rate in 2000 was 0.1 chicks per pair a
year - which equates to one chick every 10 years. "The whole thing is
about food," explains Rock. "They die at the chick stage because there
isn't enough. Fishing practises have changed. Little inshore boats used
to gut and discharge as they went, and the birds had regular,
predictable food. Now there are large boats that discharge at any time
of day or night. And the landfill in Haverfordwest closed in 1985."
Urban gulls are also starting to breed at a younger age than those in
the wild, which means they produce even more offspring; they have
breeding careers of around 10 to 20 years. There are now colonies in
most towns and cities in the UK. Some are even breeding in London.
There are pairs in Covent Garden, some near the Bank of England and
others in Russell Street, WC1. And they will be here for many years to
come. A lesser black-backed gull can live up to 34 years, and a herring
gull up to 28.
As their numbers increase, so do the number of complaints registered at
local councils. One of the most common problems is the gulls'
ear-piercing wake-up call, which starts at around 4am. Then there's the
mess. Many residents in Bristol no longer bother to clean their windows
until the end of the breeding season. And, if having to drive a car
covered in gull droppings weren't undignified enough, the acidic
composition of guano also corrodes car paintwork. They also pull at the
insulating material on roofs.
Seagulls have become such pests in Scotland - Aberdeen has the biggest
colony in Britain, with around 3,500 breeding pairs - that the matter
has been raised in the Scottish Parliament. Last November, Aberdeen
City Council's SNP group leader Kevin Stewart suggested that they be
put on the Pill. "Scientists have come up with contraceptives for
animals, and I cannot see why we shouldn't look into it for seagulls,"
he said. "There's not much problem getting seagulls to eat, so if
contraceptive pills were placed carefully, I am sure the birds would
There are other strategies that can be employed to deter urban gulls.
Most, however, are palliative, says Rock, who works as a consultant to
a number of councils trying to tackle the problem. One is to sterilise
the eggs by coating them in white mineral oil, though this doesn't
prevent the birds from breeding the following year. In other instances,
plastic eagle owls are placed in order to scare the gulls away. But the
seagulls simply sit on them. Electronic scaring devices that produce
noises similar to birds of prey, loud bangs, ribbons and objects that
make a waving motion have also been tried. While some work well at
airports, where gulls don't breed, they have little success in cities.
"You can put spikes along the tops of buildings or tension wires, and
the birds basically scratch their arses on them," says Rock. Roofs can
be covered in nets, but if not well maintained, the birds will simply
nest on top of them. Otherwise, they will set up home on the next
net-free roof and the problem is simply moved several feet away. Some
years ago, New England officials tried poison. The wind changed and
dying gulls fell out of the sky into people's back gardens.
While there are more gulls in cities, the overall numbers of some
species are in decline. Both the herring and the lesser black-backed
gull are on the Birds of Conservation Concern list, a document compiled
by the Government and various environmental organisations. The former
appears because its numbers have gone down by 25 per cent over the last
25 years; the latter because over half of them breed in 10 or fewer
sites, and Britain has over 20 per cent of the European breeding
population. "We don't particularly know why the numbers are going
down," says Graham Appleton, spokesman for the British Trust for
It provides little cheer for those plagued by gulls in their
communities. Last November, the country's first ever Urban Gull
Conference was held in Gloucester. Over 70 delegates from around
Britain listened to presentations on the legal aspects of gull control
and the need for more research. Rock, one of the speakers, is looking
for funding for a three-year study in conjunction with the British
Trust for Ornithology and Bristol University, where he is a research
associate, to uncover the feeding regimes of urban gulls and produce
strategies for managing the issue."What we don't know is where the hell
they are getting this food from. It may be that they are getting their
high-quality food from landfills, it needs to be determined," he says.
"Within 10 years, all British towns will have gull populations. Cities
will be noisier, messier place to live, not to mention potentially
With this in mind, Rock is keeping firmly to the side of buildings.
"The gull is a highly intelligent animal. They recognise me in the
street. I know because I get swooped on more often than anybody else.
As soon as I get out of my car I can hear the "gagaga" call, and they
don't do that with normal passers-by. If I get out, and I've got a
telescope on my shoulder, I start getting the low pass. I know how to
avoid getting the rest of the stuff - you walk close to the side of the
buildings, you stay in tight and keep your eye on the bird. He's not
going to attack you if you're looking at him. I know seagull language,
I know what's coming," he says.
Despite the skull-bashing he has received, Rock has developed a certain
respect for his subject. He trains his telescope on to a particular
roof. "That's where the very aggressive boys are," he says, his
camouflage jacket zipped up against the wind. "One bird hit me there
two years ago. I knew how aggressive it was. I was doing everything I
needed to do - I was up against a wall and there was a big overhang of
buddleia. I wasn't paying any attention to him because there was no way
he was going to get in there.
"In order to hit me, he would have had to be flying sideways like this
[Rock puts one arm up almost by his ear and the other by the side of
his leg], and fly right into a very tight space. I got a whack on the
back of the head and I thought, 'Well done mate'."
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