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Wildlife: The Urban Gull - a new phenomenon

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The "Majestic Herring Gull" or "Rats With Wings"

Seagull closeup

The anti-social seagull is a staple story of local newspapers all around the country, and that's because there is an urban gull colony in just about every city and town throughout the country - or soon will be. Peter Rock, an expert on the urban gull, estimated in 2003 that the urban gull population was growing at about 13% per annum. Rock, an ornithologist, estimated that in the region of the Severn Estuary there were around 6,000 wild gulls in two breeding colonies and about 20,000 urban gulls scattered over about 60 urban colonies.

Favourite arguments of the gulls' defenders are that they [the gulls] were here first and that we humans have taken or destroyed their natural habitat. In fact, the urban gull is a relatively new phenomenon. They have moved into towns and cities because rooftops provide convenient cliff-like nest sites, AND because there is a ready food supply in the food waste that humans disgard. The urban gull is the product of our modern throw-away consumer culture. Gulls are natural scavengers and the pickings in town are great!

According to Rock, what really gave momentum to the growth of urban gull populations was a change in health and safety legislation. In 1956 the Clean Air act made it illegal to burn rubbish at landfill sites. Instead at the end of each day the fresh rubbish was covered with soil or other inert material. Thus the law of unintended consequences resulted in a huge increase in food supply for the scavenging gull populations of the country. More food meant more gulls which eventually found their way on to the roofs of our towns and cities in search of nesting sites.

Some places have good records of the growth of their urban gull populations. For example, it is believed that the beginnings of the population in Gloucester can be traced back to 1976 when 3 pairs of lesser black-backed gulls were recorded nesting in the city. In 2005 the population was recorded at 2,300 pairs of lesser black-backed and herring gulls.

What is the population of urban gulls in Brighton and Hove? That's a good question, and I don't think there is an answer at present.

Herring Gull Close Up
Close Up of Adult Herring Gull
The herring gull is one of the biggest of the gull species. It is about the same size as the lesser black-backed gull, but smaller than the great black-backed gull, Britain's largest gull. It weighs about a kilogramme and has a wing span of 4 1/2 feet. The adult herring gull has a yellow bill with a pinky-red spot on its tip, as have a number of the gull species. It is believed that the pink spot stimulates the newly hatched babies. They peck at the pink spot and this in turn stimulates feeding by the adults. The adults have pink legs.


Young Gull on Brighton Pier
The young herring gull has a mottled grey and brown plumage and a dark bill. It takes two years to achieve the white and grey plamage of the adult bird.
Adult Herring Gull
Adult Herring Gull
The adult bird has a dazzling white plumage except for its wing which are light grey with black tips.

Click the photo for a large version


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