Gulls Aloud

We say hello to our blogging activities for 2016 with a piece from Andy Douse who is a Policy & Advice manager here specialising in ornithology.  Here he takes a look at gulls …  from an urban perspective.

Greater Black Backed Gulls feeding on carrion. (c) Laurie Campbell/SNH

Greater Black Backed Gulls feeding on carrion.
(c) Laurie Campbell/SNH

It’s five o’clock, mid-May and the early morning cacophony has started up. Across Scotland, and much of UK, herring and lesser black-backed gulls are already wide awake and staking their claim to a breeding territory. For many years, you had to be somewhere along the coast, or maybe on a high, heather-clad moor, but increasingly the cry of these birds, widely regarded as characteristic of our coasts and seas, is being heard well inland, and especially within our towns and cities.

For the gulls, cityscapes mimic the coastal cliff-nesting habitat that many still use, but the urban gull population is expanding in both their numbers and range. Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dumfries and Inverness have all seen massive growth in their urban gull populations and with that increase along comes the conflict with people.

View over Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill. ©Lorne Gill/SNH

View over Princes Street and Edinburgh Castle from Calton Hill.
©Lorne Gill/SNH

Every year we hear of a litany of complaints in the news, in telephone calls and emails and sometimes in public meetings. Even our elected politicians turn their attention to the plight of their constituents being harassed by gulls. Apart from the noise, there is the fouling of cars and buildings, blocked gutters and drains, aggression from parents defending eggs and young chicks and now more of these birds are exhibiting a particular fondness for our take-way food.

There are many theories as to why this is happening, ranging from loss of feeding opportunities in their ‘traditional’ haunts (at sea and along the coast), but I don’t think this entirely holds water. The simple fact is that our urban gulls have found a new habitat, and found it very much to their liking. Urban environments are almost predator-free, they are often warmer than equivalent habitats in the countryside and access to food supply, whether its fast-food from scavenging or feeding on earthworms taken from the many green spaces in our cities, abundant and easy to obtain.

Councils across UK are under pressure to do ‘something’. That something is invariably nest and egg removal. This can be effective, but it’s hard work. Access to roof nesting birds is not always easy or sometimes not possible at all. Birds are widely dispersed and if they lay a clutch of eggs which are lost, they can lay again, sometimes in a different location. We all know that council budgets are stretched and it’s not always possible to do as much as councils want. Indeed some councils do nothing at all: others (such as Dumfries) do much, but often the problem can only be contained rather than eliminated.

The paradox here is that gulls in their traditional habitats are under pressure: numbers are declining, so much so that the herring gull is now on the UK ‘red list’ of birds of conservation concern. In contrast urban populations which still make up a minority of the populations of both species are on the rise. How long will it be before they outnumber their country cousins?

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