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Why are seagulls so loud right now - and can anything be done about it?

You might have noticed some squawking from very early in the morning. Here’s why it’s happening.

Image: Sam Boal

IF YOU’VE BEEN woken up by the early-morning squawking of seagulls over the past few months, you might be wondering – hang on, are there more of them around the place? And is there anything that can be done about that noise?

After a few too many early wake-ups, we at The Journal were wondering the same. So we spoke to Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland, who filled us in on what is going on. And with all things to do with nature these days, the answer should give us humans pause for thought about our own actions. 

For starters, when we say ‘seagull’, we’re usually referring to the herring gull – that’s the gull with a white and grey body, and yellow beak with a red mark on it. There are many different species of gulls, but these tend to be the ones most people are referring to. 

“People are surprised to see gulls well inland, but the species has done it for centuries,” said Hatch. 

Due to calls for the cull of seagulls (more on that later) which have cropped up over the years, and the fact you won’t have to go far on a Dublin city street before you spot a herring gull attacking a bin bag (more on that later too), you might presume that there are more herring gulls than ever before.

But you’d be wrong.

“Contrary to what people believe, the population has declined dramatically – by over 90% in the course of 30 years,” said Hatch. The herring gull was on a red list of the majorly threatened species in Ireland. It has since been moved to the amber list, after a look at the population showed a slight increase. So that’s good news for the birds themselves. 

That slight increase is not why we’ve become more aware of their presence, however. It’s because the herring gulls have had to move more inland due to a number of factors. All of these factors have human behaviour at the root of them.

Nests in danger

Hatch explained that traditionally, the gulls would nest on islands – such as those in Dublin Bay – but these have become “overrun” with non-native predators like rats and mink, who are a threat to nesting gulls. 

This being unsafe, the gulls can then tend to go nest at the next-best option: high up on buildings in urban areas. Seagulls are very social and communicative birds, said Hatch, and that’s where the next piece of the puzzle comes in: why are they so loud right now?

Well, it’s because this is the tail end of gull breeding season. “At the moment especially, young gulls will be calling for their parents for food – that will stop in the next few weeks,” said Hatch. Surprisingly, Dublin “has far more gulls in winter than summer but they tend not be in roof spots or urban areas”.

Once the young gulls are able to fend for themselves, which should be in a few weeks, that loud communication between parent and child will reduce. 

Baby Seagulls 01 Source: Sam Boal

Another aspect to all this is the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to the need to work from home, human presence in urban areas has dramatically reduced. Hatch suspects Covid has influenced herring gulls’ behaviour to some degree.

“They scavenge, they go around cleaning up rubbish on the streets that otherwise will attract rats and foxes,” said Hatch. Herring gulls can become accustomed to going to the same areas where they know they can find food, which is why it’s important not to feed them. 

“It’s not good to associate humans with food.

With Covid, all of a sudden fewer people are around, so all of a sudden they had a food source disappear.

One food source for herring gulls is bin bags. Hatch maintains that allowing bin bags on the street – where they can be accessed by any animal – “is not a modern waste management system”.

“Gulls have learned that they can open bags and find food – rats and foxes are doing it at night, only we don’t see them.”

Due to the Covid changes, Hatch suspects that some seagulls “wandered a bit more widely to find food”, as they are “resourceful” birds. “It may be why they are turning up in areas where they are not so frequently seen,” he said.

Ecosystem under threat

ballealy-rubbish-waste-dump-site-scenes-environmental-crisis-concerns-in-ireland-landfill-sites-green-issues-birds Source: Gareth Chaney/Photocall Ireland!

There’s a wider picture to this. Hatch said that Birdwatch Ireland has “seen gulls being more desperate for food”, due to a breakdown in the ecosystem. “Problems with severe overfishing in Irish waters means the whole food chain is breaking down. Issues like climate change are affecting them as well. A lot of things are hitting them at once,” said Hatch about changes in their behaviour. 

Herring gulls are also very protective of their offspring, so if they feel threatened by a human they will make “a lot of noise to scare off potential predators”, said Hatch.

Like most birds, gulls are governed by daylight, which is why they are often heard very early in the morning. As soon as the sun rises, they’re active. That said, they’re not getting eight hours of sleep like humans. They might spend an hour or two dozing, said Hatch.

The long summer days give them more time to find food for their young, which is why they breed in the summer. 

Cull of the wild

What does Hatch think about those proposing seagulls be culled? “From a conservation point of view, that would be a disaster,” he said. Instead, we should be looking at the gulls’ behaviour, and when we see anything unusual, ask what may have caused it.

“Gulls themselves are not a problem, they are a symptom of a problem,” said Hatch. “We would be fools as humans not to see that and take steps to restore the ecosystem. Birds and creatures are suffering.”

Gulls are protected wildlife – harming them is a criminal offence. However, it is possible for the Minister over the National Parks and Wildlife Service to give licences to capture and humanely kill a protected wildlife bird for “such educational, scientific or other purposes as shall be so specified”.

The issues affecting the gulls “seems to be many things at once”, said Hatch. They include plastic pollution in the oceans, which is eaten by birds and can kill them; overfishing, which depletes a food source for the gulls among other issues; and the breakdown of the marine environment. 

“All of these things have a knock-on effect,” said Hatch. “When we see bird population going up or down or behaving differently, it’s a sign of something is affecting the food supply or where they live and it’s inevitably something to do with what humans have done.”

Added to these ecological issues is that of human disturbance, like people going to places like Ireland’s Eye and Dalkey Island – both homes to significant colonies of gulls – and disturbing them during breeding season.

Though disturbing them is technically illegal, Hatch said that these laws are “not effectively enforced”. Gulls can be aggressive to defend their chicks – and can even draw blood. “We need to have a more healthy respect for them,” said Hatch. “Don’t become over familiar with them. Don’t feed gulls so that gull don’t associate certain places with food.”

While some birds are shy and retiring, Hatch said that herring gulls “can be quite formidable”. But one thing they might not like is human eye contact, according to studies done in Cornwall. So that’s one thing to try the next time you see one sizing up your sandwich. 

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Deterrents

90078183 Source: Haydn West/Photocall Ireland

When it comes to deterring the birds, Hatch has heard of people using kites that look like birds, or putting out fake plastic owls, or even putting in place spikes. But he believes this just “transfers the problem to somewhere else”.

Instead, he said we need to address the reasons why the gulls tend to be present in certain areas, and make sure bin bags aren’t accessible or that food isn’t thrown around. 

Over in Ocean City in New Jersey in the US, birds of prey are used to keep gulls in check. Here in Ireland, Hatch said that birds of prey like peregrine falcons and buzzards were once more prevalent, but their populations have declined (in large part due to human attitudes toward them).

As a result, there’s not as many of them around to force gulls to keep a low profile. The birds of prey are such an important part of maintaining a balanced ecosystem that as their population numbers lowered, crows stepped in – that’s why we have a higher density of them than other countries do. 

Trying to restore the natural system is what we should be doing, said Hatch: “Anything less is just dealing with a symptom of the problem.”

Local government 

Green Party councillor Michael Pidgeon has been approached by a number of constituents with complaints about herring gull behaviour in recent weeks. 

“The problem is some people go naturally to the idea of looking for a cull, and I think that would be a bad approach,” he said. 

“I think what’s really needed is the issue of food availability and reducing that and basically trying to support seagulls, which are endangered species, into more appropriate habitats.”

He believes the idea of a cull “is going to keep coming up – and is stupid”, though he understands people’s concerns. He believes that local government has a role in helping to solve the issues leading to gulls moving into urban areas. 

My worry is if we just ignore the issues of managing the population, people are going to keep pushing for a cull and we will do it and it won’t work. We have a cull policy with badgers, and that seems devoid of evidence.

He reiterated Hatch’s comments about the issue of bin bags being put out and then attracting herring gulls. But he pointed out this is “a function of some of the homes we have, like small terraced housing where a wheelie bin isn’t a viable option”.

“I think we need to look at the ways in which waste for collection is stored. That is very difficult because of the system in Dublin with multiple collectors.”

He pointed to other countries such as Spain for inspiration, where household waste is collected via a local depot or on-street collection points – similar to how our bottle bank system works.

He said this is worth exploring and could help the issue. 

As a city councillor he is curious about what measures can be undertaken, “that are humane and decent”, and agreed with Hatch about the wider biodiversity issues. 

So for now, rest assured that in a few weeks the herring gulls around you will become less “communicative”. But the reasons why seagulls are in urban areas at all speaks to a larger issue not just of bird behaviour, but human behaviour – from the small (bin bags) to the large (overfishing).

The ‘seagull conversation’ is likely to continue, but rather than ending with a cull of the bird, perhaps it should start with us humans taking a long look at what impact our own behaviour is having. 

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