The media tells us that Public Enemy Number 1 is a vicious, white-plumaged menace known as The Seagull. With a hooked bill, beady eyes and a raucous call that rings across the land at any hour of the day or night, it seeks to tear our flesh, steal our food, and perhaps kill and eat our children and pets.
But are gulls really as bad as the tabloids would have it, and are things becoming worse? Are these birds becoming more predatory, aggressive and dangerous? Let’s look at the evidence.
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There’s no doubting that the big gulls of Europe and adjacent regions – the herring gull, lesser and great black-backed gulls in particular – are formidable and potentially dangerous. Yes, a gull will snatch food from a hand, especially if held aloft and out of direct human eyeline. And, yes, gulls may strike, peck or bite when defending themselves or their chicks or nests.
Furthermore, their bills or wings may make contact with people when the birds grab food. Such incidents are not uncommon and have even resulted in lacerations to the hand or face, injuries that – in rare cases – have required a short visit to the hospital.
But are such events on the increase? It might seem that they are, but this is mostly a consequence of a faster-paced news cycle and an anti-gull agenda that has emerged within some certain sectors of the press. The genuine possibility that such events are on the increase does exist – perhaps because people and gulls are increasingly sharing the same space – but there isn’t any reliable scientific indication that they are. Nor is there data showing that gulls are becoming less afraid of people, or more aggressive.
Numerous studies have looked at the diet and feeding behaviour of gulls. Gulls living in and close to cities are adaptable. Their diet is diverse, and includes food scraps and waste such as chicken, bread, fruit and vegetables. Urban gulls frequently visit rubbish dumps, where they scavenge for edible foodstuffs. This could mean that many populations of gulls are becoming more reliant on the spoils of human civilisation.
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But the same studies also show that even gulls in urban settings will still glean prey from nearby coastal habitats, and – surprisingly – eat numerous terrestrial items from wasteland, grassland and forest edges, including earthworms, insects and plant parts. In fact gulls consume seeds and fruit so frequently that they’re important seed dispersers. All in all, there’s no evidence from dietary or ecological studies that gulls are becoming more predatory.
So what about those reports where gulls have supposedly done such things as grab and consume a small dog, as reported in the British press during the summer of 2019? This possibility isn’t out of hand. Large gulls can and do capture and consume small rabbits, animals not that different in size from tiny dogs. Again, however, there are no indications that such behaviour is any more common than it ever was.
An implication of gull-themed stories in the popular press is that gull numbers are out of control, and that action is needed. But in fact many gull species aren’t increasing, but declining to a worrying degree.
The myth of the rapacious killer seagull, with a skyrocketing urban population that’s intent on hurting us isn’t just scaremongering. It’s irresponsible and harmful, given that we’re talking about birds that need our tolerance, and perhaps even our help.