Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – 3 – The European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

That form, that shape, that wingspan, those colours. Look at its dainty crossed-legs as it flies. Far from being the thug and thief people think it is this is a smart, sophisticated bird. If it robs and steals this is a white-collar con-artist, not some street thug. (Credit: WolfBlur via Pixabay)

Or your native ‘nuisance’ gull species. Where I come from it is mostly the herring gull (Larus argentatus), possibly also the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis). In the US they have the American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus). In Australia, the silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae). There are lots of gull species and almost every inhabited area has its species that have found a way to exploit how crappy humans are.

I am lucky enough that I live in a coastal town. In fact I live right by the harbour in possibly the luckiest piece of social housing you could ever possibly find anywhere in the UK. At any given moment my car’s paintwork is likely 50% automotive paint and 50% gullshit. There has not been a screenwash invented yet that is efficient at removing it from a windscreen.

To the front of my house is a beautiful harbour vista, to the rear is a bank of vegetation rich in blackberries and, I can tell you gulls eat those too! I know because I’ve had the stains on laundry that has been left out to dry. Big, angry, purple splotches will spoil your beautiful, freshly washed sheets if the local birds have their way.

A juvenile herring gull perched on a wall in Herne Bay, Kent. This beautiful, mottled grey-and-white colouration is seen in young gulls. (Credit: © Copyright pam fray CC-BY-SA 2.0)

They have a wonderful habit of tearing bin bags open speculatively and basically trying to eat anything. I told a story in my last article about vultures, how I had fishy hands (I’d been eating a roll-mop, pickled herring and raw onion skewered into a roll, it’s quite nice) and threw a pebble. The pebble must have smelled a bit of fish because a gull tried to eat it. We’re not talking gravel here this was a sizeable stone, way bigger than a gull’s crop, so about halfway down you could see the “ABORT! ABORT!” look on the gull’s face as it decided this was not good eats. It regurgitated the stone and went on its merry way. Gulls will try and eat anything that remotely smells of food.

A roll mop. Pickled herring wrapped around an onion stuffing. (Credit: Alpha CC-BY-SA 2.0)

They can also be quite aggressive and steal food off of unsuspecting people. We will talk about that in more detail later.

But for all of this talk you might be wondering “Why do you like them? Why are they misunderstood?”

You probably wouldn’t understand until you’ve seen a gull level with the height of your window trying to fly into a strong wind and the confused look they have as they don’t move forward at all. People who see the litter strewn about the streets probably wouldn’t watch idly to see how curious, how intelligent and yet also how ridiculously silly gulls are when they’re doing it. Gulls stealing food is still one of the greatest joys I get to witness in my overly busy, tourist infested hell-hole of a town. I’m autistic so I don’t like loud noises, big crowds or people. Seeing idiots get their £6 slab of battered cod nicked out of their hands by a gull, the disbelief and anger on their face after the fact, the seeming innate desire to want to chase something that has literally flown away into the sky where a human can’t follow – it’s priceless! I love it.

Gulls get a bad reputation because they’re good enough and clever enough to fuck with us and that just rattles our delicate, crystal-fragile egos. We don’t like pigeons because they exploit our wastefulness, our disgusting habits and our artificial environments. But pigeons are small and relatively harmless, you could stomp a pigeon. People don’t feel threatened by pigeons. A single gull is a big enough and threatening enough experience but…It’s rare it’s just a single gull! They like gangs, they are legion.

A group of herring gulls in the Netherlands. They often form flocks or groups, and are known to have a structure of hierarchy usually based around size. Groups like this could seem intimidating to some people when they are crowded around your cockles. (Credit: Paul van de Velde CC-BY-2.0)

So what’s the lowdown on the European herring gull (Larus argentatus)? For one thing it’s a damn beautiful bird. Anyone who wants to suggest they are ugly is letting their prejudiced opinion cloud their actual eyes. Gulls are gorgeous. A long, yellow beak, hooked at the tip, usually with a little red beard on the lower beak, fades into a snow-white head and breast. The back is a silver-grey with black at the wing tips. The European is very similar looking to the yellow-legged gull but, can you guess a tell-tale difference? If you guessed the yellow-legged gull has a cry that sounds more like “Awraaaaah” as opposed to the herring gull’s “Arawwwwh” you’d be needlessly complicating things for comic effect. The herring gull has pink legs, the yellow-legged has yellow legs.

Juveniles look slightly different, they have a piebald, black-white-grey colour scheme going on that gradually fades with age.

It’s beautiful. I don’t only disagree subjectively with people who think they are ugly, I am fairly certain if we calibrated features people find attractive in other birds and then processed gull data using those parameters they would come out as objectively handsome. Any uni students looking for a project you have my permission to use that idea so long as you namedrop We Lack Discipline! (Credit: Scottmliddell CC-BY-3.0)

Since them eating our food and rubbish is such a problem behaviour let’s talk about their diet. Larus gulls, including our European herring gull are opportunists. Fully wild their natural prey is crustaceans like crab, echinoderms like sea-stars, around here they love muscles, bivalves, and crack open their shells by dropping them from height. Despite the name they do not have a preference for herring but they are also excellent fishers and perform plunging attacks into the water to catch aquatic prey, but unlike other sea birds they don’t go deeper than about 2m below the surface so fish would be a surface-catch. I actually got to watch, from a distance, a gull picking up and dropping a fish repeatedly. I don’t know why it was performing this behaviour. Possibly it’s a kind of fish that struggles to get down the crop and so they like to stun it or kill it before they swallow it. They are also known to clean food in water before eating it so maybe it had picked up a dirty, dead fish from elsewhere and was just giving it a rinse.

They’re clever in their foraging behaviours. As mentioned they will use height and hard surfaces to crack shells (I can walk you to the car park opposite my house and show you the fragments of evidence!), they wash salty or dirty foods before eating them, they have been seen using bait to catch goldfish in ponds, they have been seen (by myself, even) padding on soil with their feet to encourage earthworms to the surface. The behaviour is believed to mimic either the sound of rain upon the surface, or potentially the arrival and digging of moles, but either way it encourages earthworms to get the fuck out and straight into the waiting beak of a gull.

A common food of herring gulls, I regularly see them with crabs around by me. Studies have shown that in their native, coastal habitats the bulk of their diet is crustaceans like this crab here, and echinoderms, things like starfish. (Credit: nottsexminer CC-BY-SA 2.0)

So, since we’re talking about feeding behaviour let’s get on to food stealing. As far as misunderstandings go this is one of the worst because it pisses you off. Obviously! You just got your grub nicked. But what you’re not thinking of is just how damn clever that gull has to be to outsmart what is possibly the most intelligent species on the planet.

To anyone who had their food stolen. Did you notice the gull? Did you see it coming? Was it a surprise?

I suspect the answers are no, no, yes.

That’s the behaviour. Gulls aren’t stupid in fact they’re so damn smart it hurts me when people think they’re dumb.

Gulls are so clever they respond to the human gaze. In a 2019 study it was found that gulls were less likely to approach a completely free bag of chips (fries) if they were being watched than if they weren’t. The food was placed in front of an experimenter, so they were not being held, and it was found only 26% of gulls approached. Of those that did they took significantly longer to approach and inspect the food if they were being watched than if the human was looking away.

So how did they get this behaviour? In the wild gulls are partially kleptoparasitic – It’s a fancy word for ‘they steal food off of others’. This can be other gulls (the herring gull is known to exhibit social and hierarchical behaviours, big boys may steal food from smaller gulls) or it could be other species entirely. They also steal eggs on the regular! Clever bastards.

Stealing food is not a behaviour gulls use exclusive to piss off people. It is known as kleptoparasitism and it is common in gulls, especially the Larus genus. Here we see a Western gull (Larus occidentalis), native to the US West Coast, chasing an elegant tern (Thalasseus elegans) the intent being to either steal its catch, or scare it into dropping it. (Credit: Kevin Cole CC-BY-2.0)

For one absolutely amazing thing, this klepotparasitism with human targets seems to be…for want of a less anthropomorphic (humanising) word, cultural. Only certain populations do it, even then it seems it begins with only certain individuals who then teach, by demonstration, others how to do it. That, alone, is reason to love and respect gulls.

But so are their methods. A gull finding a way to pinch a chip from under your nose, when your chips are beside you, or unguarded on your lap, is one thing. Populations, however, are learning how to snatch stuff right out of our hands, on the wing! This is highly complex behaviour.

I can’t find the study but I’m fairly certain a study was done down in the south-west that demonstrated this dive-bombing, stealing, behaviour is just as, if not more complex than their ground-based thievery.

They need to know you can’t see them. You’re getting ambushed! It is doubtful a gull will readily get all up in your grill to pinch your sandwich. They surprise you. But they demonstrate this behaviour to their peers, to their young, and it spreads. They learn. That’s damn admirable. So we end up with these small pockets, these communities of gulls that have this remarkable behaviour of outsmarting the world’s smartest ape. Show some fucking respect!

The response of Muldoon when a pre-gull ancestral species attempts to steal his Gregg’s Steak Bake (credit: Universal pictures via giphy)

Again, pop your fragile ego and the couple of quid cost to one side for a minute and what you see is a very clever bird. It is a bird that used to rely on aquatic ecosystems that we have over-exploited for ourselves for their lifestyle and have readily adapted to move inland and exploit us instead. We hate them for how good they are at it.

They win because they’re smarter than you. Because unlike you they have learned there is advantage to be gained in understanding and exploiting our behaviours. You, in your artificial bubble, surrounded by bricks-and-mortar, concrete and tarmac, you think you run this shit. You don’t. Humans don’t own the world, no matter how much our silly little minds might try and convince us. Gulls found an ‘in’, they found an ecosystem niche that involves exploiting the most dominant land animal, they’re good at it and they took the time to learn our behaviours to exploit them.

You want to deter gulls from being aggressive and robbing people?

Dealing with Potentially Aggressive Gulls

  1. DO NOT FEED GULLS
  2. Always be vigilant, gulls are averse to the human gaze, just looking at a gull is enough of a deterrent.
  3. Be aware of gulls above you. Are there any on eaves or rooftops watching you?
  4. If you are being hovered over by gulls in the air, or suspect you are about to be dive-bombed hold an arm up. Gulls are big birds, with a sizeable wingspan. Holding your arm in the air provides an obstacle that they have to manoeuver around.  Do not wave your arms, just hold one or both of them above your head.
  5. Deal with it. If you take all the precautionary steps and still get your food nicked, deal with it. You got outsmarted. Take a lesson from the gulls. Learn about them, study their behaviour, and do better next time.
  6. DO NOT FEED GULLS! I can’t stress that one enough, humans feeding gulls is one the key reasons they end up stealing from people. They learn that we’re just marks.
A lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) with a chick. Generally these are smaller than the European herring gull, although natural variation does occur. In case you couldn’t tell the black-back is a giveaway! (Credit: © Copyright Anne Burgess CC-BY-SA 2.0)

So that must be it for gulls, right?

Newp! We haven’t even talked about communication yet. All evidence seems to indicate that those squawks, chirps, squeaks, pips and that long, laughing “Gyaaaaaaa-hyah-hyah-hyah-hyah!” noise they make is all complex communication. There are alarm calls, territorial calls, begging calls – Not just calls, have you ever seen a juvenile gull begging for food and it sort of bows its head and makes that squeaky-peep sort of sound? That’s the standard ‘beg for food’ posture and noise. Adult gulls, though, have you noticed they do it too when you’re feeding them (and shouldn’t be…)? They are literally exhibiting child-like behaviour, acting cute, to get food out of you.

In biology exhibition of traits, physical or behavioural, associated with juvenility is called ‘neoteny’. It’s a nice word. For example dogs have been bred for neoteny, not only in their appearance – developing big eyes, head shapes, sizes that are more puppy-like, but in their behaviours. Cats meowing at humans is an example of a neotenous behaviour, adult cats do not typically communicate with one another in meows so their use of that method of interaction with humans is neotenous. Likewise, adult gulls begging for food using short peep sounds and ducking their heads is a neotenous behaviour. It’s fascinating.

An excellent video of what I think are ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) exhibiting the neotenous behaviour. Note how early on in the video a particular gull (that gets zoomed in on) performs a small squatting posture, and gives its head a nod with an upward flick. This is how young gulls signal to their parents they want food. Sadly the ring-billed gull is a rare and dwindling visitor to UK shores now. They used to migrate across the Atlantic from the Eastern United States but the same drivers moving European herring gulls inland in the UK (waste disposal, exploitation of human environments away from the coast, nesting on roofs) is believed to be driving the ring-billed gull to travel inland, rather than across the sea. (Credit: IloveSPIDERZ)

So gulls are able to notice a human gaze and respond to it accordingly, are intelligent enough to regularly outsmart people, have developed neotenous behaviours to encourage us to feed them willingly, have a complex set of communication behaviours both vocal and postural to send signals and messages to each other, use some of these things, along with teaching demonstrations, to form cultural grouping who have specific behaviours (e.g. ice cream thievery) that other communities may not have, are surprisingly effective hunters when not given easier food to nick, and yet their numbers are in decline! I can find pest-control websites that angrily, in all caps, state “GULLS ARE A PEST!” and, like with a group of animals coming up in this list, a whole diverse group gets thrown into that category because they look gull like.

I cannot find an evaluation of the ecosystem services provided by gull species to the UK. I can find lots of information about the costs of gulls, the money councils spend gull-proofing roofing, taking care of problem gulls etc. but I can’t find a single assessment of the value they provide. How much food waste is consumed by gulls that would otherwise just be landfill? How much less clean-up is there after a hot sunny day at the beach because gulls come by and take care of the edible mess? And let me tell you, I live in a seaside town. I know who causes more problems between gulls and humans!

A group of American herring gulls (Larus smithsonianus) eating from a mound of food waste. The gulls did not create this resource. We did. The gulls exploit it, saving us money in clearing up waste and ensuring far from being wasted, the nutrients find their way into the food web to sustain ecosystems rather than simply rotting to mulch in some landfill. Mulch is wonderful, but animals are cooler. (Credit: Tim CC-BY-2.0)

I’ve read that they can harbour and spread Escherichia coli, a bacterium known as E. coli, that can cause gastro-intestinal upset, what we might call ‘food poisoning’. You have to ingest E. coli to get infected with it. Unless you’re petting gulls that’s not an issue and, if you are petting gulls…WASH YOUR FUCKING HANDS! The single greatest vector for E. coli in the human population is unhygienic humans and I don’t see pest companies saying “You got a neighbour who doesn’t wash his hands properly after a piss, cutting raw meat or resting his hands on a surface that may have bird droppings? Kill the fucker!” But that’s what we do with gulls. It’s any excuse to kill and I hate it.

We don’t like gulls because they’re good. In many ways they are better than us. They can outsmart us, steal our things, they’ve walked into shops and nicked packets of crisps! I’ll try and include a YouTube video it’s awesome.

A European herring gull in a coffee shop stealing a bag of quite high end crisps! (or chips for people across the Atlantic). They are sneaky, clever. I mean, I suspect that if they learn people will tolerate this behaviour for humour and not interrupt them they will be bolder and do it more in the future. They’re clever, they learn.

With so many of these animals, seen through an ignorant and selfish lens, it is easy to see why the dislike, the disregard and the hatred. It is a selfish lens, though, and when we learn to accept and understand the creature for what it is we realise there’s a lot more to them than just a begging pest.

Dr. David Shiffman, a marine scientist, shark scientist, marine ecologist and an excellent science communicator, recently put out a question asking us for our favourite sea bird. I said the European herring gull. It’s what started this whole list. A list I have thoroughly enjoyed writing, I have learned so much from doing, I have gained a greater, deeper understanding of how human relationships with animals are formed and – I want to be part of a solution to these negative opinions.

What’s my strength? I’m me, I’m We Lack Discipline. I don’t have a University to worry about offending. I don’t write for an organ I need to be concerned about getting sacked from. So I can say things like “If you don’t like gulls I wanna punch you in the face!” and I don’t have to worry about losing my job. The whole point of We Lack Discipline is to be that crude, brash, forceful voice. Science communication is, by necessity as well as by selection, informed, erudite and polite. I’m the man with the megaphone saying “FUCK THAT!” and begging for your attention.

Love this bird or I’ll ‘urt ya! …Nah, not really but I will probably angrily swear at you and I’m no shrimp, me shouting at you could be quite scary! (credit: Beata May CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Gulls are the kind of species that need a voice like that. From the most working-class of populations, all the way up to the best educated, richest people, they are hated. Some polls and surveys have put seagulls as the UK’s most hated bird, possibly the most hated animal. They are perceived as scavengers, thieves and thugs. People who are ‘attacked’ think they are needlessly aggressive. But those same people are usually, you know, carrying food. I bet a poll of gulls would find a lot of them don’t like us for stealing their crabs, robbing them of echinoderms and eating all the damn fish, but they don’t have The Daily Mail so they don’t have a voice! Other people who are attacked are usually interfering with young. Look, I don’t care how concerned you are for a baby gull, at worst it’s gull food, leave them be. Gulls go off and look for food and leave their young behind, those young end up cowering in corners making peeping noises to get their mother’s attention and if you, not matter how good naturedly, approach it and the mother notices, yeah you getting cut, son! You’re gonna get pecked and scratched! If you left your kid to one side to go grab some fish and chips or something and gull approached their pram and started prodding at them, you’d attack the gull too. You fucking idiots!

They are taken for granted as a common sight that regularly interacts with us. Just as we can hurt those closest to us the most, those species that are right up in our faces are at most danger of prejudice. We disregard them. But we’re also gullist, we spread that disregard to the lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus), the great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), the yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis), the kittiwake (Rissa spp.), the common gull (Larus canus), the black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)! Many of these do not interact with us the same way our herring gulls do. A lot of them are seasonal visitors, migrating for food or to nest. Yet we toss them, unflinchingly, into the category of disregarded, unremarkable pests.

A great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), larger than the European herring gull and a truly amazing sight. They are the largest member of the gulls, with up wingspan approaching 2m (usually between 1.4-1.8m) They are a lot more predatory than other Larus species and so spend a lot of time out at sea hunting fish and other sea birds. As a result they are mainly only spotted around the coasts during breeding and rearing season and are thus frequently spotted with their young. (Credit: Arnstein Rønning CC-BY-SA 3.0)

What we disregard is a bird in decline because of our persecution of it. A bird that we are rapidly overexploiting the resources it evolved to naturally rely upon, that was intelligent enough to adapt to our way of living, and that we begrudge it for that adaptation. We disregard a valuable coastal and, increasingly, inland waste disposal unit that recycles organic materials we would otherwise throw into landfill and sets them moving about the ecosystem again. We disregard a beautiful and intelligent bird that, when seen flying at full potential, is a majestic marvel to behold. When you see them diving into the sea, or delicately dancing in the sky dropping shells onto rocks you realise this is truly a special species.

According to data from the RSPB herring gull numbers in the UK used to be around 750,000 breeding pairs. That is down to around 378,000 breeding pairs – a near halving of the UK population. This disregard, this lack of understanding, this unwarranted hatred will make this situation worse. As I said, I can find no data on ecosystem services provided by gulls. The impact of a significant reduction in their numbers will only be felt once they are gone.

We disregard these amazing bird. Why? Because they’re loud, exploit the environment we built to dominate over other species and nick our chips? Grow up.

That around 750,000 individuals of this beautiful species have disappeared from our shores – Either killed or dispersed elsewhere, where they are free to live as they choose, is a tragedy. As an island nation, gull species should be some of our most treasured. They are emblematic of our meandering coastline. Yet they ‘inconvenience’ us and are persecuted not for doing anything specifically wrong, but for not merely conforming to how we expect them to behave. It’s sad and it makes me angry. (Credit: Mike_68 via Pixabay)

Last time out I talked about how we took the last remaining wild California condor into captivity, and rescued a species not from the brink of extinction but from certain extinction, thanks to education, adaptation and hard work.

The same change in outlook be done for gulls, and we can salvage a relationship with them. But it is going to take a lot of force from scientists, bird enthusiasts, the RSPB and so many others to stop this ‘attacker’ narrative, to stop this negative framing of standard, wild gull behaviours and to realise that gulls are the victims of the colonisation and over-exploitation of gull habitats by humans. Every species has a right to compete; it’s what drives genetic change. But humans are the only species supposedly smart enough to be able to consider everything’s place and realise when they’ve won the fucking competition!

One last vid to show the humour and charm these birds can bring us. A gull in nature’s wind tunnel! (Credit: The Weather Network)

The gulls are doing a great job living up to the necessities and expectations of their species. I think it’s time humans started doing the same.

Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat

Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

An overly curious lovechild of Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs and the kitsch pen section of Paperchase. Karl is on a mission to expose the seedy underbelly of academia, and thus making it appealing to wrong 'uns.

7 thoughts on “Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals – 3 – The European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

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