Thugs of the sky, rats with wings, flying ashtrays… Some birds just can’t do anything right, no matter what they’re really like. How did they get those reputations, and are they justified?
Firstly, we just want to declare our membership of that merry band of pedants who state that there’s no such thing as a seagull. Just like there’s no such thing as a landtit.
Of course, we know it’s just an informal way of referring to any member of the gull family Laridae. The term “seagull” was validated in the English-speaking world in 1542, when it was first published in the 2nd edition of the precursor to the modern dictionary, The Wordbook by Thomas Elyot.
When people talk of seagulls, they are almost always thinking of herring, lesser, and great black-backed gulls, those prolific populators of coastal town resorts and shingled seafronts. Not only can they walk, swim and fly, they tend to be large, with long wings and big webbed feet, sharp bills perfectly adapted for scavenging, and a rather confident attitude.
Falcon-shaped drones, coloured flags, spiked lampposts, nothing has worked.
It is this attitude that has singled them out as objects of ire. No summer goes by without a local paper printing sensational stories of attacks on people clutching food, or being dive-bombed just crossing a road. Food-stealing poop-spreading noise-making winged nuisances, everyone has a tale of days out by the sea and newly washed cars ruined.
Many deterrents have been tried, such as recorded distress calls being played out over speakers, but they soon learnt there was no threat. Falcon-shaped drones, coloured flags, spiked lampposts, nothing has worked. A shocking case of taking things too far happened in the UK when a man, trying to eat his lunch, grabbed the feet of a would-be-thief and swung it through the air, smashing it on a wall. The blow didn’t kill the bird outright, and it had to be put out of its misery a few hours later by a vet. As gulls are protected in the UK by law, the man was sought but alas never found.
Whilst researching this article with the sentence “why do people hate gulls”, the internet offered the following for my perusal:
“What is the point of seagulls?”
“Why can you not kill seagulls?”
It is hard to think of a more maligned bird than the gull.
Hold my beer, says the pigeon.
Pigeons are so prevalent, as with gulls, governments have spent billions on trying to eradicate them, and nothing has worked. Plastic owls don’t move, smell or sound like owls. Architectural changes like slopes and spikes are challenges to be overcome. Birds of prey can only eat so much in a day.
Modern feral pigeons are descendants from rock doves.
So, where does this almost psychopathic desire to erase gulls and pigeons come from? Let’s take a closer look at that common denominator: people. You. Me. Them. Everybody.
In the 50s, it was discovered that pigeons carry the diseases salmonella and tuberculosis. In the 60s, one New York City health official publicly linked two deaths to pigeons, but subsequent investigation by the New York Department of Health and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention could not confirm any cases of people getting sick from pigeons. People and pigeons rarely interact in ways in which the birds can make us sick. But by that point, it didn’t matter: the thought was embedded in the city’s psyche. Pigeon excrement is everywhere, so when faced with increasing costs of cleaning a city paved with poop, it was far easier to whip up condemnation against an innocent bird than admit the costs were hard to bear and require cuts elsewhere. In 1966, the New York governor coined the term “rats with wings”, and thus a hate campaign was born. Making people think they were doomed to die by pigeon was a cunning and deliberate move.
Prior to this, pigeons were loved as companions and encouraged to breed since the Egyptian times. Darwin, with all the wealth of the Galapagos to choose from, selected the humble pigeon as the opener to his great work: modern feral pigeons are descendants from rock doves. Originally inhabiting cliffs like the aforementioned gulls, rock doves were brought to the shores of our continents as pets to be trained, fashion statements to be hybridised, and food for the table. Known for their outstandingly strong bonds to their homes, they were employed as life-saving messengers during both World Wars. Inevitable escapees led to the population booms we see today, encouraged by the abundance of food just laying around.
Similarly, with gulls, humans watched and adopted their unparalleled fishing techniques, using them as companion birds to seek out shoals of fish in open waters, and symbiotic friendships between gulls and mankind have been documented across the ages. Studies on Franklin’s gulls have shown they possess unique community traits, not seen in other species of birds: “asylum chick-rearing”. Instead of shunning an accidental addition to a nest, any parent or grandparent will raise any chick for the greater good of the colony. And whilst not as clever as crows, all gulls can learn to use external elements of their environments as tools – cars crushing dropped mussel shells, for example. As with pigeons, gulls began to move into our coastal towns, regarding the new seafront residences as strangely uniform cliffs. The Clean Air Act of 1956 in the UK meant that we were no longer permitted to burn our rubbish, and with an ever-increasing consumerist society after the scarcities of war, landfill sites appeared. Throw in the invention of the plastic refuse sack, there was suddenly accessible food everywhere for gulls to feast on.
Research has shown that junk food has caused gulls to become more aggressive.
Attacks on humans can be for food, but also because you have inadvertently wandered too close to a nest, no matter how out of sight it is from you; remember when you are strolling along the promenade with fast food in hand, summer is also the time that gulls are trying to raise their young. Aggression in gulls cannot be downplayed, but it turns out we are to blame for that too: research has shown that junk food has caused gulls to become more aggressive. Our predilection for low nutritional value is actually altering the chemical makeup of gull’s moods. We are a poor man’s Doctor Moreau.
Us and them
It is thought that those who fear birds do so out of some sort of primal fear; we can’t fly, so something that has this supernatural ability is different, therefore to be feared. Couple that with a survival instinct against disease, even though the threat is low, alongside our preponderance for ownership (my food, my home), and you have the perfect blend of lashing out.
Another theory gaining traction is a simple ‘us and them’ with respect to territory in terms of something called “imaginative geography”. Cities and towns were created to be ordered, clean spaces, separate from the unpredictable dangerous wilds of nature. Pigeons and gulls wantonly cross those boundaries we think we have put in place, “our” cities, our parks, our holiday destinations. We simply don’t like sharing with something that is deemed to belong elsewhere, especially when it is done so frequently and visibly.
There is no denying that the abundance of these birds causes problems. Damage to property, mess to be cleaned away, noise pollution, sometimes injuries inflicted; a balance needs to be struck. But in order to do so we must first acknowledge our place in that balance. We are no greater or lesser than they are, and we are hugely responsible for their presence in the first place. So, what can we do?
The main and perhaps only thing we can do at this late stage of the game is clean up after ourselves. Opportunists throughout, gulls and pigeons will find discarded food anywhere. Restaurants, take-aways, hotels, shops, any kind of venue where food is located should always be using containers with heavy and lockable lids. Litter bins need to be emptied more regularly, and more abundant. Governments have thrown countless budgets at “pest control” since day one and the tide does seem to be turning with that respect, but it is also an individual’s responsibility to dispose of food and any other organic matter properly. Education on littering is finally stepping up in more countries, although we do have a long way to go.
When setting out your bird feeders, if you know you have resident pigeons or gulls nearby, try to use feeders appropriate to the size of the type you want to attract. Platform feeders are fine but if you see that they are being mobbed by larger birds, think about swapping them out for mesh or tube feeders.
The truth of the matter is that we may never be rid of our nesting neighbours, in which case we should learn to live with them. It will take a paradigm shift from a perspective that has been nurtured for decades, but they are after all incapable of fighting against the innate urge to survive in a world of unpredictability and resource challenges, just like you.