A View from the Hill: See a gull? Give it a break

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I once hired a young reporter who turned out to have studied ornithology.

Whenever a fellow reporter would write “seagull” in a story — we were a coastal newspaper, so that was often — Joe would pounce.

“There is no such thing as a seagull,” he would chastise. “They are gulls.”

That was new to me, but I haven’t forgotten it. Now I correct others.

I was reminded of this the other day in a discussion on the NextDoor website, where neighbors can get worked up about most anything.

Barbara of the West End started it by writing about how she misses the gulls after a neighbor went to great lengths to scare them away, successfully.

“I work from my home office and loved watching the seagulls (oops!) in the spring,” Barbara wrote. “Building nests, sitting on eggs, seeing the babies emerge in their cute clumsiness. I look forward to it every year. This year my neighbor is waging war.”

She guessed “that maybe I am in the minority in my love for the gulls.”

Not at all, Barbara.

“I know how ya feel,” chimed in Alex from Parkside. “People always wreck nice things.”

And Stacey of the East End said, “I love waking up to the sound of the gulls (there ya go!). Come to the East End for an early a.m. walk. Gulls galore!!!”

But Lowell of the West End was having none of it.

“Seagulls made our deck unusable for a good many weeks in the spring/summer before we took measures to discourage them from using our roof to build nests,” he wrote. “Flying rats,” he called them.

Jodi of the West End said her household was split on the issue. “I love the seagulls. Husband hates them. So there’s that.”

But not just that. There is actually much more to the story.

There are 54 species of gulls in the world. Maine has seen 16 species, according to the late Peter Vickery, author of “Birds of Maine.” Most of those 16 species, like the lovely Arctic-based ivory gull, are seldom seen.

But not the herring gull, which is the most common here, and against which most complaints are filed. For causing a stink, nothing beats this bird.

I once sat outside at a lobster shack on a Portland wharf with the managing editor of this newspaper. A huge gull swept in suddenly, narrowly missed the editor’s head, grabbed a French fry from the hand of a woman eating at a table next to us, and flew off.

It was an act of the highest aviation skill, although the herring gull is actually kind of clumsy.

It was also an act of desperation. Life is tough for gulls, and getting tougher. It’s never been easy. First, it was the millinery trade in the late 1800s, which hammered the population in pursuit of feathers for hats. The birds weren’t protected federally until the Bird Protection Act of 1918.

But the act left room for killing the population to protect public safety. In the 1920s and ’30s, according to Vickery, puncturing and oiling of eggs was used to slow the growth of coastal nesting populations.

The population recovered, but the other foot fell when New England’s fisheries collapsed between 1970 and 1990, coinciding with the closure of nearly 400 landfills in Maine and hundreds more across New England. 

I clearly recall driving through Manchester, New Hampshire, on summer holidays and seeing huge flocks of gulls swarming the landfill. It was a difficult picture to reconcile for a kid used to seeing them on the beach in Maine.

Suddenly, the herring gull had to pivot from the bottomless free buffet of the dumps to another food source. And that’s when some of them turned to cities for sustenance.

Hence the messy roof decks on the Portland waterfront where the herring gulls have taken up residence. So it was to those rooftops University of New England ornithologist Noah Perlut and his students climbed a couple of years ago to band and study the urban gulls.

Perlut was profiled in 2020 by Yankee magazine. A reporter accompanied him to the seldom-visited roof of the Portland Museum of Art, one of several rooftops where Perlut has been observing the herring gull.

In the summer of 1999, 96 herring gull chicks hatched in nests on the roofs of the museum, according to the story. Across the city, Perlut estimates 300 chicks are hatched on these rooftops each season. He doesn’t know if that’s a trend, but he points out that in the United Kingdom cities have seen populations of urban gulls quadruple.

Meanwhile, as Yankee pointed out, the gull population in the Gulf of Maine declined by 40 percent. The urban herring gull may be here to stay, so Perlut thinks it’s time city dwellers got to know their new neighbors. 

“Part of this is for the love of understanding the animals that we’re so in contact with every day,” he told the magazine. “They just have a bag full of mysterious behaviors that we see here on the street and we think it’s that simple, when their lives in reality are much more complicated.”

And remember, for every gull stealing a French fry or tearing open a plastic garbage bag, there are many more bobbing peacefully in the ocean waves, or soaring gracefully on thermals high in the sky. 

They’re not looking for trouble. Just survival. 

So if you don’t like them, suggests Mary on NextDoor, “Don’t live by the ocean.”

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.