Beware of the birds

What danger lies behind the squawks of Trinity’s gulls?

Photo by Joe McCallion

Love them or hate them, the squawking and sauntering of seagulls is familiar to most urban inhabitants and students alike: especially those who dare to eat outside. The banter of such a lunchtime session is a regular occurrence for many of us, and we know all too well how our peace can be disturbed as we first notice the signature cry of a gull. Peeking surreptitiously around corners and then flying down to surround our food, the ringing of mental alarm bells is almost audible as we frantically scurry to protect our lunch, like a mother protecting her young. Is the seagull a modern urban threat?  

A justified fear
It has grown increasingly evident that the college campuses of Ireland are easy pickings for seagulls. The number of students eating and enjoying their lunch outside are easy targets, and where one seagull goes, there are sure to be more to follow. A fear of birds in general is classified as “ornithophobia,” and perhaps unsurprisingly the term “laridaphobia” has been coined as the name given to people who have a fear of gulls in particular.

This fear has been prompted for many people by gull attacks and other stressful encounters. The rise in these attacks has been noted throughout Ireland, with two cases gaining national media attention in the last three years. The first involved a rather humanised antagonist, “Jonathan” the seagull hailing from Waterford who “terrorised” the community surrounding Dunmore East, “dive-bombing” at joggers, and overall being a complete public menace. Some observers wryly commented that he seemed to “laugh” after each attack. The frightening bird restricted local residents and tourists from eating outside during the height of summer and even made his way to being the subject of Dáil discussion during his reign of terror. Former TD Ned O’Sullivan called for a solution to the seagull problem in Dublin, commenting that the seagulls are “getting so cheeky now that they attack young children and dispossess them of their lollipops and stuff like that”.

The second case of outrage occurred in March 2017, when the North Dublin suburb of Balbriggan was targeted by gulls who were reported to have “viciously attacked residents”. Barry Nolan, director of company Wildlife Management Services – a private company who deal with gulls nesting in residential areas and are also heavily involved in gull research, is confident in his belief that gulls are “placid” and are simply “often misunderstood”. Gulls are known to travel up to 40 kilometers a day in search for food, so, often the common conception we have of seagulls being loiterers around the city foraging for scraps are not accurate. “I don’t see them as a threat, I’ve been dealing with them for twelve years and have never been attacked,” he said to Trinity News.

A student perspective
Others would disagree, such as Ciara O’Leary, a Junior Sophister student who has a strong fear of the gulls. “I think it started from a place of empathy,” she explained, recounting how she often pitied gulls as well as other birds, especially ones which were one-legged or appeared to be suffered from other defects, when she was younger. However, the experience of having a slice of pizza stolen out of her hands by a seagull led her to come to the conclusion that a terror of gulls was “a rational fear”.  

Nolan, however, expressed that the dread surrounding gulls is often over-hyped. Nolan points to the fact that many of the issues surrounding gulls are arguably a result of human activity, begging the question: could it be that we are to blame for the often aggressive demeanor of gulls? It must be noted that gulls have been forced to come further inland to the city centre and urban areas in search of food due to over-fishing.

This creates a need for reflection on the perception of seagulls as devilish thieving birds – perhaps this villainous creature was created by fault of our own. On a more fundamental level, gulls constantly attempt to acquire food from humans because when they are fed by us once, they believe they deserve food anytime. Perhaps our disdain for gulls needs to be evaluated when we consider what we have done to contribute to the problem.

Not the only birds
This is not the first instance when human involvement in feeding the birds has led to previously unfounded issues. The seemingly idyllic activity of feeding ducks by the pond-side is perhaps a fond childhood memory for us all, but when the news broke in the media that feeding ducks bread was inherently bad for the health of the birds, we stopped in our tracks. The iconic “Feed the Birds” song from Mary Poppins further idealised the concept of tending to the hunger of the species, yet we should learn now that once the seagulls are fed, they remain eternally hungry for more.

Nolan firmly believes that gulls may simply be inherently misunderstood animals. Wildlife Management have been extensively involved in research surrounding the gulls, with their recent “Urban Gull Ringing Project” for example. The project aims to provide valuable information on Ireland’s urban nesting gulls by tagging urban gulls with rings on their feet in order to track their location. Interestingly, one of the gulls involved in the project, who has been tagged, had previously frequented the area around the National Gallery prior to this year, where it is now being tracked in Portugal.  

Swans, seagulls and pigeons are amongst the most common birds many of us encounter on a daily basis, yet the gulls are feared and detested in equal measure more than the rest. It cannot be denied that swan attacks can be deadlier and often, more shocking, than the somewhat benign incidences of a hungry seagull. For example a tragic incident in Chicago where a man drowned as a result of a swan attacking and capsizing his boat. Perhaps our fear and distaste of gulls remains supreme because gulls are seen to be urban intruders. They are comfortable marching about on land, as opposed to swans who usually remain very close to the banks of lakes and rivers.

Next time any of us are approached by a gull, either maliciously or cautiously, it might be worth it to consider the rationale behind their behaviour. The typical student is not too different from the infamous gull – we too are hungry, mildly disgruntled and capable of travelling long distances in search of nourishment. Where the food is, we will go, and we can be sure that a gull will follow.

Suzanne Flynn

Suzanne Flynn is the current Deputy Life Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Law and German student.