Seagulls are ubiquitous and unpopular in St Andrews, but few people actually know much about them. Isabel Quattlebaum discusses some of the misconceptions about these fascinating birds.
Every morning starts the same for many St Andrews students. They are awakened from their sleep, not by an alarm clock, but by the incessant screeching of the seagulls. There are signs on nearly every street in town warning passersby not to feed the gulls, or “trash-birds” as some prefer to call them. The birds peck at bin bags on the street, make a mess on rooftops, and in some cases, even resort to stealing their lunch right out of an unlucky pedestrian’s hands. The gulls are seen by many town residents as nothing more than a roving clan of pests looking to steal and vandalise. With all the hatred they receive from the community, one can almost picture them as a tiny bird gang, pa trolling the streets in miniature leather jackets looking to mug you for half of an unwanted candy bar. I, for one, am no fan of the trash-birds, evidenced by the fact that I actually refer to them as trash-birds. I fought these creatures last year when they decided to nest on my roof, and while I did manage to startle them away occasionally with a loud noise, I ultimately lost the war. It was a tough loss that led to an increased use of ear plugs and a significant amount of swearing.
The public opinion of the gulls has been in a steady decline since they began nesting on roofs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) credits the 1956 Clean Air Act with their migration to more urban areas. The Act prohibited the burning of rubbish, so the gulls quickly began to take advantage of the large amounts of edible trash being produced and improperly disposed of. While this was a never ending dream buffet for the birds, it increased their presence in human populated areas, where they are looked upon as pests. As far as species control goes, the UK government allows killing gulls only when they are a significant health and safety hazard, and only as a last resort. If St Andrews starts looking like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, then the seagulls might face some ramifications. However, unless life truly begins to imitate art, it appears the birds are here to stay.
What most people tend not to know when they are bemoaning the annoyances caused by the birds is that several types of gulls are actually endangered in the UK. According to the RSPB, Herring Gulls, some of the biggest offenders in Fife, are currently on the Red List for endangered species. A Red List species has the highest conservation priority. This means that the species is globally threatened. Birds in the UK on the Red List have had at least a 50 per cent decline in population over the last 25 years or more. Herring Gulls are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which provides protection for the birds and their nests. Failure to abide by the rules enacted by the Wildlife and Countryside Act can lead to an unlimited fine and even prison time. While the birds are a source of vexation for many people, continued attempts at lethal population control in areas where they are unwanted could cause population numbers to further deteriorate. RBSP presents the startling statistic that 1 in 4 UK birds are in decline. Seagulls may not have the adorable smallness of a finch or the majestic plumage of a peacock, but their presence balances out the ecosystem, and their disappearance would have definite ramifications. In light of this knowledge, wiping out an entire species that is a large part of our marine environment to avoid a little early morning noise might not be the fairest trade off.
In the past, St Andrews has attempted to curb the gull population in rather unorthodox ways. In 2012, Fife Today reported that South American Harris Hawks were to be introduced into the area in an attempt to drive away the sea birds. In mid March of that year, birds of prey were relocated to roofs around town, with the majority of them centered on Hope Street, Howard Place, Greyfriars Garden and Abbotsford Crescent. The project was designed to target the birds during their spring nesting season, which is usually their noisiest time of year. While it was reported that residents were pleased with the results in the first few months of the project, it appears that this showdown between avians did not keep the gulls away permanently.
Aside from keeping up their image as public enemy number one, gulls lead very clever lives. According to One Kind Planet, a non-profit designed to educate the public about animals, they can learn new behaviors and then teach them to other birds. Seagulls have been known to obtain their food in more interesting ways than stealing your sandwich when you walk down the street. They will stomp their feet as a group to trick earthworms into believing it is raining and drive them to the surface. They also demonstrate tool use by dropping hard shelled prey onto rocks or concrete to break them open. This can be seen from time to time by East Sands. The trash-birds also have a romantic side. Male and female seagulls mate for life, and they take turns incubating their eggs and caring for their chicks. Those noises you might hear the birds making at all hours are not designed solely to disrupt your sleep. They are actually an intricate form of communication that includes an extensive repertoire of sounds and movements. Seagulls exhibit rare and impressive traits exclusive to their kind too. The gulls can drink both fresh and saltwater. This is a rare trait amongst all animal species, but seagulls have special glands designed to remove the salt from their systems. This makes them well suited to living by the seaside. One of the most striking features of the gulls is their immense size. They can grow to up to 60cm tall and can have a wingspan of over five feet. Some of the birds seen patrolling the streets of St Andrews look as if they could carry away a housecat in their beaks with minimal effort. Herring Gulls can live for up to 15 years, meaning that some of the birds in St Andrews could have been residents in the town for much longer than their human neighbours.
To keep the peace between town and gull, there are several recommendations. Make sure your rubbish bins are closed tightly and any compost is kept securely covered. When having a beach bonfire or a garden picnic, ensure that all rubbish is properly disposed of. Do not feed the gulls, as this only encourages their scavenging behavior and increases the likelihood that you will be dive-bombed for your ice cream cone in the future. The RSPB points out that while it is usually best not to disturb nesting birds, there are some genuine hazards to having them nest on roofs. To deter birds from nesting on houses in the future, a system of wires can be placed on rooftops and in areas where the birds like to build their homes. When you encounter a seagull on the street, resist the urge to kick it because you could go to jail or at least receive a heavy fine for violating the Wildlife and Countryside Act (and perhaps for being a generally terrible human being). Instead, take a step back and remember all of the good qualities of the seagulls. They are intelligent, family oriented and are an important part of the marine ecosystem. Their cawing also ensures that you never accidentally sleep in when you have a 9 am lecture.
Despite seeming like they are everywhere, the birds are facing extinction at an increasingly fast rate. Whether you see them as trash birds or as a friendly seaside attraction, perhaps our feathered friends deserve a bit more respect. The government and many conservation groups seem to think so. The loss of any species, no matter how annoying they may be, is a major blow to our planet. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds offers donation opportunities on their website, as well as advice for how you can help your local bird populations thrive. At the end of the day, for better or for worse, the seagulls are an intrinsic part of St Andrews life that we can only hope will be here long after we are gone.