Seagulls ‘charismatic’ not ‘criminal’, say scientists

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Herring gullImage source, Tony Jolliffe/BBC
Image caption,

The herring gull is on the UK Red List of birds of conservation concern

Seagulls are being forced into our towns by the loss of natural spaces – and we need to learn to live alongside them, say scientists.

Hit by multiple pressures, from avian flu to depleted fish stocks, gull populations are dwindling in the wild.

Driven into urban areas to survive, they are coming into conflict with humans for stealing food.

But rather than seeing them as pests we should respect these "clever birds", said one expert.

"When we see behaviours we think of as mischievous or criminal – almost, we're seeing a really clever bird implementing very intelligent behaviour," said Prof Paul Graham of the University of Sussex. "I think we need to learn how to live with them."

Gulls stealing chipsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,

Herring gulls are coming inland to feed on leftovers as numbers of fish in our seas dwindle

Excluded from their natural habitats by human activities, species that can adapt to urban life, such as the herring gull, have little choice but to move into urban areas to pick through our waste, he said.

And what's thought of as nuisance behaviour is a sign of their smartness and social learning skills.

"During their lifetime they learn about which items that are discarded might be food and they've probably learned that by observing older birds.

"Over time, they'll build a repertoire of quite skilled behaviours which enables them to liberate food either from your bins or from humans directly."

There are simple solutions to the problem, Prof Graham added, such as providing larger, more secure bins in public spaces and educating people not to leave leftover food lying around.

Group of seagullsImage source, Tony Jolliffe/BBC
Image caption,

In winter, gulls gather in large numbers to roost communally on lakes and reservoirs

The warning comes amid growing conservation concern for gulls.

The six main UK gull species – the black-headed gull, common gull, Mediterranean gull, lesser black-backed gull, herring gull and great black-backed gull – are all declining and either amber- or, in the case of the herring gull, red-listed.

In January, the first national survey of winter gulls in 20 years took place, to look at the number and distribution of populations overwintering in the UK.

"I don't think people realise that the numbers, especially of our breeding gulls, have been declining," said Dawn Balmer of the British Trust for Ornithology. "They're in our towns and parks and urban areas and we have become quite familiar with them."

Great black-backed gullImage source, Tony Jolliffe/BBC
Image caption,

The great black-backed gull is the largest member of the gull family

During the winter, gulls roost in large numbers at night, making it easier to count birds returning to lakes and reservoirs and giving valuable information on patterns of decline.

"They're very charismatic creatures and definitely get a bad rap for sometimes aggressive behaviour in the breeding season," said Emma Caulfield, who runs The Winter Gull Survey (WinGS). "But they are part of our natural world and they're just taking advantage of the hand that's been dealt them."

More data on winter gulls will be collected at the end of the year. Anyone with enough knowledge to tell the different gull species apart can sign up to help. The data that will be used to develop better conservation strategies for gulls.

While natural nesting populations are in decline, some believe numbers of birds nesting on buildings have increased, but there is limited data to back this up, according to Natural England.

Follow Helen on X @hbriggs


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