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Dublin: 13 °C Friday 17 August, 2018
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Seagulls are not monsters - let's stop the hysteria

BirdWatch Ireland’s Niall Hatch responds to concerns about Ireland’s ‘rogue’ gulls.

Niall Hatch

THERE HAS BEEN heated debate in the Irish media in recent days about the perceived threats posed by “seagulls” in urban areas. Concerns have been raised about their aggressive behaviour and, in particular, about several incidents where the birds have stolen food from people. It’s good to have a discussion about this, but a number of common misconceptions need to be corrected if that discussion is to be a proper, informed one.

The first thing to point out is that there isn’t really such a bird as a “seagull” at all. Ireland is home to a dozen or so different species of gull, and while some of these do favour a marine environment, many are by no means tied to the sea.

Targeted species

The species that has featured most prominently in the recent hysteria is the herring gull, a large member of the gull family that is found throughout Ireland.

While this species is certainly more numerous in coastal areas, it is also often found well inland, and this has been the case for centuries. It also needs to be remembered that most of Ireland’s main cities are coastal, and have always been home to gull populations.

Two species in particular, the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull, have in recent years begun to nest on city rooftops, and this has been particularly noticeable in Dublin City Centre.

This doesn’t, however, mean that our national populations of these species have increased. Indeed, Irish herring gull numbers have declined by well over 50% over the past few decades, and the species is on BirdWatch Ireland’s “red list”, meaning it is of particular conservation concern.

Summer sensitivity

It’s no coincidence that people become more aware of urban herring gulls at this time of year: tales of aggressive gulls appear in the media during mid- to late-July every year.

That’s because this is the time when the gull chicks are getting ready to leave their nests, and their parents become extremely protective and agitated when their precious offspring are at their most vulnerable. They will sometimes squawk and even swoop at people or pets if they feel that these pose a threat to their young, but this behaviour will cease within the next few weeks when their chicks have left home and are fending for themselves.

Dublin is actually home to far more gulls during the winter than it is during the summer, yet they are rarely viewed as aggressive or threatening outside of June and July.

It should also be remembered that the vast majority of these rooftop-nesting gulls have no interest in harassing people.

A very small number of so-called “rogue” individuals have, however, learned that human beings can be an easy meal ticket. This is in almost all cases because these individuals have been fed by people: it’s no coincidence that one of the key hotspots for this type of antisocial avian activity in Dublin is around Grafton St, right beside St Stephen’s Green where large numbers of people go each day to throw food to the gulls.

We would strongly discourage people from doing this. A gull that is not used to being fed by humans does not learn to associate humans with food, will maintain a healthy fear of people and will avoid getting too close to us.

Urban scavengers

There are some inconveniences, certainly, but let’s not discount the upside of urban gulls and the benefits that they bring.

We human beings often, quite bizarrely, harbour prejudice against animals that mostly scavenge for a living, but in fact urban scavengers such as herring gulls do us a great service. They efficiently dispose of discarded food waste that would otherwise attract rodents and other vermin, they help to keep our beaches clean and they remove roadkill and other decomposing animal remains. They also help to control dangerous pests that pose a far greater risk to human health: for example, rats and mice form a not insignificant proportion of the diet of urban herring gulls.

One of the biggest problems that we face is that nobody has any real idea of exactly how many herring and lesser black-backed gulls now nest on our city rooftops, nor where their main nesting areas are within those cities.

Proper survey work needs to be undertaken to answer these questions, so that we can get a true picture of what’s going on. Until that happens, this regrettable hysteria will rear its head again each summer and we will continue to go round in circles.

Niall Hatch is the development officer of BirdWatch Ireland, Ireland’s largest conservation charity, which is dedicated to the protection of Ireland’s wild birds and biodiversity. For more information about its work or to become member, visit www.birdwatchireland.ie or call 01-2819878.

If you know of any roof-nesting gulls in a town or city near you, BirdWatch Ireland is asking you to let them know by completing a quick online survey form here

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