There are ways of telling a story. Some start from the beginning, some start from the interesting bit, selling out the most scandalous or juicy information first, and some will tell a story in snail-like speed, making the listener yawn and ask additional questions to speed things up. And there is a perspective, too. Some people tell the story from their own point of view, not even contemplating the idea of being non-judgemental. Some are empathetic and care deeply for others’ feelings, trying to understand them. There are stories of adventures, travels, people, relationships. stories about the weather and about delicious things one has eaten.
My story is a story of seagulls. It’s a story of Brighton as seen by these remarkable birds. Contrary to the common belief, there are many species of seagulls, varying in colour, size, and character. They all make up a family of gulls, small to large seabirds, some strictly marine and some staying on land for at least a part of the year. We are so used to seeing them, that we often assume the seagull family is homogeneous, whereas the truth is that the British seagull family comprises of 7 different species, all of which are red or amber listed by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The seagull we are all most associated with, the city-dweller called herring gull is red-listed, which means its population suffered rapid declines recently. So, just in case someone is considering injuring a herring gull, it’s good to know it is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. Maybe instead of thinking how annoying they can be, we could try and understand the birds a little? Do some peaceful bird-watching, they really are beautiful! If you need a guide, how to recognise different gull types and learn about their behaviours, check the British Wild Birds website. These animals are truly fascinating.
I have been to Brighton many times, too many to count. The city changes with seasons, going from being overcrowded and incredibly noisy in the summer to a peaceful hibernation throughout the winter months, to be awoken again for the festive Christmas period. The city is diverse, hides many neighbourhoods, one more surprising than the other. When you walk around Brighton, you can be almost certain that you’ll stumble upon something new, exciting, hitherto unknown. Be it a tiny coffee shop, a vintage bookshop, a piece of street art, a street performer or a food market. The city constantly changes, it’s never fully dormant, even when all the tourists are gone, fish and chip shops empty and ice cream parlours closed.
The seagulls watch over the city throughout the seasons. Always alert, even when seemingly sleeping. Not overly friendly, they can be intimidating at times, especially when one presents himself to them with irresistible ice cream with a chocolate flake in it. They would observe a delinquent, make strategic decisions, position themselves in a spot from which they would depart, and then proceed to attack. Sometimes, just one lone seagull would dive into your ice cream, steal the flake and fly away with a satisfying squeak. Sometimes, two or three birds will surround you and intimidate you until you give up your doughnut. Their loud cries and persistent presence can sure make one feel uneasy.
The birds can get very intimidating indeed, getting very close to you or even trying to sit on your head – every move is a good move when it comes to getting food. But I wouldn’t panic. The birds, contrary to what some articles out there claim, are not after people. They are after our food. And it’s entirely our fault, too. It’s us, people who fed our food to the birds, because ‘they are so cute’, and now they have learnt that stealing food from people is indeed much easier than looking for it in the wild.
If seagulls become aggressive – they probably have a reason. They don’t have an evil plan to attack people for fun. They are either after our food or trying to protect their young when they feel threatened by us, humans (we are big and scary, aren’t we?), getting too close to their nests where their precious offspring just hatched. Before they proceed to perform their infamous ‘dive-bombing’, they usually try to warn us, scare us off, away from their nest or chicks, which we’ve gotten too close to. The seagull doesn’t want to kill us, just to tell us to go away.
It is somehow sad that we demonise the birds, race ourselves in expressing our hatred for these creatures. It’s easy to blame the bird: they cannot talk back, defend themselves. Seagulls interact with humans for two reasons, food and protecting their nests and chicks. It’s worth remembering, next time we come into an unwanted and possibly not very friendly encounter with these birds.
It’s remarkable, how the birds have adjusted to city life: how they now prefer to ‘hunt’ for ice cream than hunt in the wild, how they discovered that food waste, left behind by the thousands of visitors, is an easily accessible and quite filling pick, helping them sustain themselves without an effort of going out to the open sea. Apparently, it wasn’t until the 1930s when they started nesting in urban areas. The rise in human population density after the war meant more buildings, which were increasingly seen by the birds as the perfect nesting grounds, where they could be safe from predators. It’s us, humans, who have taught the birds to start associating us with food, which now poses a problem sometimes, as the seagull attacks are more and more common.
And although some call seagulls the rats of the sky or pests, I still have a weakness for them. The seagull’s cry indicates that the sea is near. Where there’s a sea, there are seagulls: they are a part of the landscape, in their territory. It’s humans who are guests at the beach. I believe that a peaceful cohabitation of seagulls and humans is possible, but the birds need to tone down a notch, and people need to stop feeding them food (which is not necessarily good for them anyway) and manage their food waste better. I always wondered, what is it with humans and their irresistible nudge to feed everyone and everything within reach? What sort of instinct tells us to feed animals at the zoo or in the wild, what makes us think that they are in a desperate need of a chocolate biscuit or a cheeseburger?
Nonetheless, in a town like Brighton, a famous seaside resort nestled on the south coast of England that attracts tourists not only from within the UK but also from many other corners of the world, the seagulls are everywhere, silently watching or noisily making their presence acknowledged. You see them flying in groups, crying loudly as if they were trying to claim the territory for themselves. It would be difficult to imagine the city without them. And sure enough, they can be noisy, dirty and intimidating, potentially dangerous even, but that doesn’t mean they are evil and to be gotten rid of. It’s a combination of factors, that they have become so difficult to manage. I can’t help but wonder: if it wasn’t for people, providing a never-ending supply of food waste, overflowing rubbish bins, who knows if the birds would have ever converted to a junk-food diet? And although the situation is not as bad as Banksy imagined in his artwork, it’s sometimes easy to picture things ‘going south’ indeed. Solution? How about we stop feeding the seagulls with our food and manage our food waste properly, instead of blaming the birds for all the damage? Just a thought.
Below, a gallery full of majestic seagulls, getting about their daily activities on one October afternoon.