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Is it time to reconsider how we feel about seagulls?

From overfishing to biodiversity loss, the seagull population is dwindling.  Scientists are urging us to live alongside them, rather than shunning them as pests.

If you live in the UK, it’s likely you’ve had at least one altercation with a seagull.

Members of a larger family of seabirds, they’re most commonly found at the beach, where it’s unspoken knowledge to keep your chips covered.

Notorious for stealing food, the seagull’s tendency for thievery has earned it a sour reputation across Britain.

But what if we’ve gotten it all wrong?

In 2022, Natural England published data revealing that an estimated three quarters of the seagull population were residing in towns and cities countrywide, qualifying gulls as ‘urban creatures.’

According to the public body’s report, more and more of them had begun to nest in built-up areas, prompting a dramatic rise in conflict with humans and calls for increased culling (despite a ban on the removal of their eggs that was introduced two years prior over conservation concerns).

Today paints a different picture, however.

While there’s by no means been a shift in sentiment – the seabirds are still seen as ‘winged menaces’ and ‘noisy, messy, destructive, and greedy scavengers’ – the climate crisis has taken its toll and we’re witnessing a serious decline in gull numbers.

The six main species – black-headed, common, Mediterranean, lesser black-backed, herring, and great black-backed gull – are either amber- or, in the case of the herring gull, red-listed.

Excluded from their natural habitats by human activity, they have little choice but to move into urban environments so they can pick through our waste.

Overfishing is also to blame for the dramatic dip, as it’s led to a decrease in the quality and quantity of their food source.

‘As their favourite grub of small fish has become harder to find, they’ll settle for whatever we leave available,’ Natural England said in a recent statement.

‘Gull species are actually struggling in their native habitat, with their numbers tumbling in some areas and for all species in Scotland.’

With this in mind, scientists are urging us to stop thinking of gulls as ‘pests’ and instead learn to live alongside them and respect their intelligence.

‘When we see behaviours we think of as mischievous or criminal, we’re actually seeing a really clever bird implementing really clever behaviour,’ Professor Paul Graham of the University of Sussex told the BBC. ‘We need to learn how to live with them.’

He recommends simple solutions to the problem, such as providing larger, more secure bins in public spaces, and educating people not to leave leftover food lying around.

‘They’re charismatic creatures and definitely get a bad rap for sometimes aggressive behaviour in the breeding season,’ says Emma Caulfield, who runs The Winter Gull Survey (WinGS).

‘But they are part of our natural world and they’re just taking advantage of the hand that’s been dealt them.’