The return of the angry birds

Seagulls are making headlines again. A cognitive biologist explains why we’ll be living with their attacks until there are fewer people near the sea and more fish in it

Nathan Emery
Monday 18 July 2016 12:17
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A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on a beach
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on a beach

Until Wednesday – when a 15 year-old girl sadly sustained spinal injuries in St Ives, after she was startled by a gull snatching her ice cream and fell from a harbour wall – it had all the makings of what has become an annual "silly season" story. The warm-up started a few days ago with “‘Ultra’ seagulls are mugging people and trying to break into cars” (The South Wales Evening Post) and was followed by “Seagull scourge ... as they attack postmen” (The Daily Telegraph) and “Maritime mayhem” (the Telegraph again). Meanwhile, gulls seized a teenager’s Greggs sandwich in Dundee, according to the local Courier; the Seventies pop star David Essex was gulled of his cone in Anglesey (the Daily Star); and all media outlets feasted on the story of the RSPB expert who was dive-pecked by gulls when he was trying to return some eggs to their nest.

But why do seagulls attack people? Are they fundamentally mean, or do they have a deeper motivation? Although a common bird, we know little about “deep” seagull psychology (although this will hopefully change, as psychologists in Bristol have started to study what makes them tick). However, most animals fight when they want something – either food, or to protect their offspring – and gulls are no different. In fact, their numbers are gradually declining. So why are we noticing them so much more these days?

Well, there are a many reasons why they have become a problem. Seagulls are omnivorous, so will eat anything, even human rubbish. (Humans are also omnivorous, which probably lead to our intelligence and success as a species.) As gulls’ supply of fish runs out, they have to find food elsewhere. We discard tons of high-quality food every day; thrown out because it’s gone past its best-before date, but a banquet for a hungry gull. It’s no coincidence that most gulls attack to steal our treats. Seagulls are also highly neophillic, so unafraid of new things. A crow will be very cautious when approaching something new, whereas a gull will approach anything to see if it’s edible. And since they are extremely aggressive to each other, it’s no surprise when gulls challenge us over our lunch.

Then there’s the matter of timing. The "silly season” roughly coincides with the gull breeding season. Desperate parents are struggling to find enough food to placate their voracious chicks, or protecting them from predators. Anything close to the nest is a threat and will be attacked. This week, when nesting gulls launched at a primary school-gate father in Hartlepool, he withdrew his children from school because he was scared of a repetition. And it’s understandable to be scared if an animal attacks your child. Many parents’ first instinct is to demand the offending animal be destroyed. However, we sometimes have to step back from our feelings and think about why the animal attacked and how we might prevent it happening in the future.

Gulls move inland when their food runs out, and we provide a plentiful supply of high-calorie foods

Recently in the US, a young boy climbed into the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla enclosure. Harambe, a large male gorilla, approached the boy and was considered an immediate danger, so was shot and killed. Many gorilla experts have now questioned whether the gorilla was attacking or protecting the child. Although a lower risk, a gull could seriously injure a young child, so was this parent wrong to want to remove his kids from danger? The father probably didn’t realise the gull was protecting its own chicks, and that simply avoiding the area around the nest could have reduced the threat. We have to take responsibility for our actions. We decimate the gulls’ food; we should expect them to try and take ours. We approach their nests; we should expect to get mobbed. Perhaps our general inability to care about or understand the natural world is the cause of our misadventures with it when it turns up on our doorstep.

To quote my own book Bird Brain: “As birds encroach into human environments because of the threat of climate change and habitat destruction, with the subsequent effects of reducing their food supplies and potential nesting sites, we have to adapt to their presence, but they also have to adapt to these strange new worlds. Those birds that are smart enough to adapt their behaviour to a changing world will be more successful than those species that cannot. As birds start to share our world, they will lose their fear of us and increase their tenacity. Some species, such as gulls, are behaviourally flexible, exploiting a wide variety of resources that puts them potentially into conflict with humans. However, mutual assistance and respect can stave off a real-life version of Hitchcock’s The Birds!”

So how do we live in harmony with birds such as gulls? Many think we shouldn’t try; we should just kill them. Thankfully, nesting seagulls are protected (though this is no comfort to those whose lives are put in danger, distress or inconvenience by these angry birds). But even if it were legal, destroying gulls or their nests is not a practical, ethical or rational solution to the problem we ourselves have caused. We need to address the root of the problem, not its symptoms. Gulls move inland when their food runs out, and we provide a plentiful supply of high-calorie foods. Gull nesting sites have been destroyed, so they nest further inland where it’s warmer. I wish I had an answer. Until fish stocks return and shorelines are given back to our wildlife, it’s not clear what can be done to stem this onslaught of avian invaders. But for now, we need to find a way to live happily together. Having empathy and knowledge for what motivates our feathered friends may be the best start.

Dr Nathan Emery is senior lecturer in cognitive biology at Queen Mary, University of London, and author of ‘Bird Brain: an Exploration of Avian Intelligence’ (Ivy Press, £20)

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