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Why Did Seagulls Evolve to Be So Annoying?

Is there a scientific reason these flying bastards suck so hard?

It’s the week of Fourth of July. And while we appreciate you being here, we really hope it’s from some stretch of sand or some body of water relaxing enough that your problems can be put on the same kind of ice as the booze in the cooler next to you. If not, throw on your shades anyway, and join us for our weeklong package, “Life’s a Beach,” a celebration of all things sand, sun and summer. Of course, if you’re already on vacation, you’re welcome, too — just be sure to reapply another layer of sunscreen, as these pieces burn bright. Read all of them here.

Seagulls suck.

If they aren’t honking like hell at stupid o’clock in the morning, they’re dumping everywhere, or swooping in out of nowhere to steal your fries and scare the absolute shit out of you. As Joseph Reynolds, President of the Save Coastal Wildlife nonprofit, wrote in 2020: “There are a lot of people who are angry with them. They find gulls to be ‘rats of the sky,’ or ‘shit hawks,’ or ‘bags of crap with wings.’”

People have tried all kinds of ways to deal with gulls. (A good thing to know: Nobody who studies gulls will use the word “seagulls” — or come to think of it, “shit hawks”; there are over 50 different types of gull, but the one we generally mean when we think of seagulls is the herring gull.) Methods of gull management include covering everything in spikes, bringing in hawks, throwing out decoy birds to frighten them off and piping in distress-call noises to turn them away. In some places, the USDA uses a grisly practice known as “effigy,” in which they dangle dead seagulls from piers and other places in a bid to warn others off.

But nothing works. Gulls are incredibly adaptable, meaning whatever anyone tries to do to curtail their behavior, they just work around, finding new ways to be a pain in the ass. For instance…

If you’re eating food anywhere near one, they’re a huge pain in the ass. A 2020 paper in Royal Society Open Science found that gulls could respond to human behavioral cues in their search for food — i.e., if they had a choice between grabbing some food that a person had touched and some other food that hadn’t been fondled, they preferred the “grabbing it out of someone’s goddamn hands” option. 

They’re a pain in the ass financially. According to a 2017 study from Duke University, around 1.4 million gulls feed at landfills, which leads to them shitting all over the place. Gull dumps are full of nutrients, but not the nutrients the waters around the landfills necessarily need. The study estimated 240 tons of nitrogen and 39 tons of phosphorus make their way into lakes and reservoirs every year courtesy of gulls, leading to growth of algae and weeds. Local governments spend about $100 million combating this, meaning every individual gull chomping on a landfill is costing the U.S. taxpayer about $70 per year.

They’re a pain in the ass to each other. Far beyond that, in fact — they’re quite into eating their young, and “pain in the ass” doesn’t generally extend to cannibalism. One paper from the 1960s by the world’s most-celebrated gull-cannibalism scientist documented the fates of 1,415 young gulls, and found almost a quarter of them to be eaten by gull cannibals, with almost another quarter dead either from head wounds (caused by adult gulls) or some other cause. Mass infanticide? What a pain in the ass!

How did they get to be such ass-pains then? 

When it comes to loudness, you’d probably want to be loud too if you were a gull. “Gulls make loud calls to communicate with each other,” says Madeleine Goumas from the University of Exeter, lead author on the 2020 study mentioned above. “Other gulls need to know, for example, if a nest site is taken and will be defended. They also call to alert other gulls to predators in the area, and that includes humans. I suspect they’re probably as loud as they are because they need to be able to communicate in all kinds of weather, including when by a crashing, stormy sea.”

And the rest of it — the food-stealing, landfill-shitting and mess-making — is kind of down to us. Cities are incredibly gull-friendly — there’s food all over the place, nice high places for them to nest, and very little in the way of predators. We’ve built a perfect place for them, only to get all shitty when they thrive there.

“Gulls are generalists, which means they can eat a wide range of foods, and this makes them suitable for urban living,” Goumas explains. “Not only do they eat our food waste, but also earthworms on lawns, ants on pavements and many other things. Gulls have been increasingly nesting in urban areas — herring gulls in particular like to nest on the roofs of houses. These elevated nest sites seem to help protect their chicks from ground-dwelling predators, which can be a problem in their more traditional habitats.” 

If we want seagulls to annoy us less, we need to make our environment less alluring to them. A 2016 paper in the journal Bird Study found that food, generally in the form of trash, was the main thing that drew gulls to areas full of people. They weren’t seeking shelter or avoiding anything, just dining on our carelessly discarded piles of crap. 

Thinking about it that way, we’re kind of harsh on gulls. They’ve adapted incredibly to a world that’s changed around them, and instead of focusing on the ingenious ways they’ve done that — learning from humans; effortlessly transitioning between land, sea and sky — we focus on them pooping on stuff and being loud. (Also, you know what a particularly non-annoying habit is? Efficient co-parenting, something at which gulls excel, with male and female gulls splitting childcare and egg-sitting duties.)

“Many of the reasons why people dislike gulls are a result of judging them to different standards than they do other animals,” says Goumas. “I’ve seen gulls vilified for eating mammals and other birds, but when a wild cat does that, it’s considered impressive. Most people don’t ever stop to consider what it’s like to be a gull: There are no supermarkets to make your next meal a certainty, no moral codes saying you shouldn’t eat someone else’s food, no way of knowing that the person whose house you’ve built your nest on isn’t going to kill your chicks. People would be more understanding of their behavior and less angry if they considered these things.”

So the next time you get angry at a gull for squawking away, or dive-bombing for some food, take a second to admire the majesty of their flight, or think about the elegant way they can catch a fry in mid-air. They’re pretty impressive creatures with which, for better or worse, we share our world, and the more we can get along the better.

Just maybe don’t think about the eating-babies bit though, because that shit’s nasty.