Gulls and Us

Phil Penman

New York Harbor, August 2018

I tried to give up birdwatching for a time in my early twenties. The scene of my abandonment was a gull roost on a reservoir. From a hide on the banks of Chew Valley Lake, outside Bristol, England, I often watched gulls coming to land on the water to find a place to sleep. Many common gulls did this and, occasionally, one or more ring-billed gulls, vagrants from North America, got caught up on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and came to rest with the regular crowd.

In the hide, if others were with me, there was a chance of picking out a ring-billed gull. But on my own, I never managed it. My desire to see a ring-billed gull prevented me from seeing one in the shakedown of thousands of birds arriving out of the dying light, and then the exquisite distribution of these white forms across the darkening water. I felt stupid to have misread the truth of the scene. Any ring-billed gull that was there was a barely significant accident in the great arrival of local birds that was going on. It was them that I should have attended to and not the putative vagrant in their midst. I put away my binoculars for much of the next three years.

Before I quit, I had seen most of the gulls then known in Britain. The gulls I grew up with were herring, lesser black-backed, great black-backed, black-headed, common, and kittiwake. The gulls I saw as a teenager, when I began to chase after rare birds, were little, glaucous, Iceland, Mediterranean, Sabine’s, ring-billed (I was shown one eventually at Chew), Bonaparte’s, Franklin’s, laughing, Ross’s, and ivory. Some are Arctic species; some are American.

Recent revisions to our taxonomic understanding of birds, and resulting changes to the record that include the splitting and lumping together of species—some birds previously thought subspecies have been redesignated as separate species; others believed to have been different have been shown to be less distinctive than once thought and have been taxonomically demoted, as it were, to subspecies—have released more gulls that might now be seen in Britain. (There aren’t actually more gulls; they’ve simply been given new names and species status.) Most notable among the additions are yellow-legged and Caspian gulls. Previously, both these birds were believed to be races or subspecies of the herring gull. There are also smaller numbers of other split species, assorted subspecies and hybrids, including American herring, Thayer’s, Baltic, Azorean, Viking, Nelson, and more with names still stuck in Latin. All are hard to spot and few are easy to tell apart. Yellow-legged and Caspian gulls are the species whose observed presence in Britain has prompted new interest among birdwatchers in the family as a whole.

The first rare bird I sighted was a Mediterranean gull at Oxwich on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales. I was twelve. My friend Richard was with me, and we wrote a description of what we saw and had our bird accepted by the county recorder, so it found its place in the county bird report for that year. After the Mediterranean gull, I got serious and “twitched” other rares: an ivory gull, polar-white, at Chesil Beach in January 1980; two Sabine’s gulls at Sheringham on one wild autumn sea-watch; a laughing gull at Yarmouth (or was that a Franklin’s gull?); a Bonaparte’s somewhere, perhaps in Cornwall. I should check my notebooks, except that I wasn’t a good diarist then, especially not on the chase, when everything in front of me was too exciting to be captured by standing to one side of it and writing it down. Besides, I was intimidated by the records of my fellow birdwatchers: the beautiful lifelike sketches of Laurel Tucker, who was often in the front seat of the car we shared from Bristol to get to the target bird; or the meticulous counts and annotations of Antony Merritt, who wrote in pencil and then sprayed his pages with fixative to preserve his lists, and who now is sick and has been, for decades, cruelly confined indoors.


It was a gull that also got me back into birdwatching. I worked for a time in bird conservation after I left university. Birds were my day job for three years, and usually that left me wanting to do other things when I wasn’t at work. But the lure of some species never dims. An adult Ross’s gull—an unbelievably pink bird—arrived in Norfolk in May 1984 and my boss, Nigel Collar, was similarly surprised by his resurgent appetite; he drove us the hundred miles to collect the prize at Titchwell where it sat, like a melting raspberry-ripple ice cream on a muddy island.


Phil Penman

Lower Manhattan, August 2018

Not long after that rarity, I noticed how the herring and lesser black-backed gulls had set up shop in my hometown of Bristol. The city is only a few miles from the Severn Estuary, and the River Avon, a tidal finger, drives daily into its heart. Among Bristol’s sound-signatures are the birds’ marine yelps as they navigate the Avon and the Feeder and the Cut and the other channels that broker the meeting of fresh and salt water. But in the 1980s, when I left the city (to study, and before I returned, with a young family, to work), the gulls had started something new—breeding on rooftops across its center. In that time, well within the lifespan of individual birds, a profound change gripped both species: urban gulls came of age.

Near the center of Bristol, until a few years ago, there was an ice rink and music venue in a chunky building complex with a flat roof put up in the late Sixties. I skated there once as a teenager. In 1978, next door at the Locarno, I watched Suicide open for The Clash, and enjoyed the electronic Americans more than the jangly Brits. There were no gulls at that time, as far as I recall.

By the Nineties, you couldn’t miss the gulls. From early spring until late summer, the roof was always busy with herring and lesser black-backeds. Standing next door in the multi-story car park, you could easily see fifty or more birds. I began to watch the colony during my lunch breaks. Level G, the highest in the car park, was open to the sky and offered a panorama of the city center; in midsummer it was good for gulling.

The first afternoon I went to the car park was hot and muggy; the felted roof grew sticky. A shrinking puddle of water attracted three young lesser black-backeds. They sipped at it. One still had down around its teenage face—“bum fluff,” we used to call it in my Locarno days. I could see that almost every suitable flat roof across the city center had breeding birds on it. There was even a herring gull nesting between the hooves of one of the two golden unicorns prancing on top of the city’s Council House. Someone had planted a two-foot-high plastic great horned owl on the far end of another roof to scare the birds off, and I was pleased to see another herring gull dozing on its nest at the base of the shit-spattered decoy. The gulls seemed particularly drawn to this area, as if they divined its hidden waters, where the last reaches of the tidal river runs culverted and capped below the streets. In fact the water is not so important to them. They had made a nutrient-rich sea out of the city’s food waste and a marine archipelago out of its unlovely rooftops.

At the ice rink, jackhammers were demolishing something with a noise like the bombard of a shingle beach at the foot of a cliff. The hum of the rink’s cooling fans added to the mix. The roof, with its black-tarred felt, was like the lava plug of a volcanic island. Dripping in the July sun at the back of the rink was a small mountain of dirty, cast-off ice, like a wayward iceberg fretting at a northern shore.

Tim Dee

A herring gull foraging on Guernsey, August 2017

The nesting gulls preferred the edge of the roof above, where a shallow trench had grown a thin scab of mud and a drift of bottles. Earlier in the year, I had watched gulls fly over the city with mouthfuls of bright green moss or fresh grass. They were busy then, building or repairing nests. The rooftop assembly looked casual and messy, a shanty town built on a sewage works, but it was a formalized space: a place of territories, rituals, and hierarchies of age and of species. There was even a dance floor.

An adult lesser black-backed gull landed near its two young with a piece of grey chicken skin flapping in its beak. One youngster grabbed it and bolted it down. Other young birds bleated hungrily; some tried their wings and made circuits of the roof; others walked about like disconsolate children trailing home after a summer day on the beach. Flying ants crashed everywhere and loafing gulls picked at them. Between begging calls, the young birds made more practice launches, flapping their wings and jumping. Paired adults were re-forming their relationships; returning birds went in for bouts of head flicking and kissing. Neighbors were in dispute, caterwauling above the din. Moaning babies were held off by stabs to the head by their mothers or fathers, but they were tenacious and advanced again, pecking at their parent’s red bill-spot. A young bird walked backwards like a hypnotist leading its zombie parent, and eventually a meal was sicked up. A loitering carrion crow flew in, but the adult gull, broken from its spell, saw it off.


In a way, it is fitting that the gulls have made Bristol their home. The city that brought half of the Atlantic to Britain—slaves, sugar, and tobacco—has drawn seabirds, as well, into its heart. The gulls are canny opportunists and worthy embodiments of the spirit of the place. And people hate them for it.

The gulls’ boom in the northern hemisphere has coincided with industrialization and urbanization. By moving onto the rooftops of our buildings and by sourcing our edible refuse at rubbish dumps, gulls—herring gulls more than any—have gained unique admission into our habitat. No other relatively large wild animal is more commonly encountered. Pigeons in cities and pheasants in rural areas compete as members of what has been called a “slum avifauna,” but both those birds have surrendered to human terms and conditions (pigeons have abandoned the sea cliffs they once nested on, pheasants are reared in their millions like a farm animal). Gulls are still wildlife; they are still called seagulls, and are associated with waves and saltwater by most people, but over the course of the last hundred years, especially around the North Atlantic, they have come ashore. In part, they elected to fly inland; in part, we made them do so. They have lived in our slipstream, following trawlers, ploughs, garbage trucks. And they continue to tell how something of the once-wild can share our present world.

They survive as we do now, walking built-up zones and grabbing a bite where they can. In 2016, a herring gull was dyed orange after it fell into a vat of curry in Newport in South Wales. In July 2018, herring gulls were reported drunk along the Devon and Dorset coasts. This novel behavior largely disturbs us: we have started to fear that gulls get along with us too well. Nowadays, gulls are increasingly thought of not as seabirds but trash birds, the sub-natural inhabitants of what MIT professor of urban design Alan Berger called “drosscapes,” déclassé and mongrelizing in their habits. We see them as scavengers, not as entrepreneurs—as aliens, not as refugees. They steal our chips and kill our Chihuahuas. They are too big for the world they have entered.

Some of this distaste is particular to the times, and some is a resurgent rivalrous antagonism that almost any other creature on Earth can trigger in our species—that dark loathing we can find in ourselves for any nonhuman life. Yet, even besmirched like this, the gulls keep us company. And they’ll be with us, we feel, for the duration of this, our late hour.

Claire Spottiswoode

Kelp and Hartlaub’s gulls flocking to a trash heap, Cape Town, South Africa, December 2017

Landfill means more than just a tip for the end of things. It is also a description of how we have worked the living world, learned about it, named and catalogued it, and have thus occupied or planted our planet, filling the land. F. Scott Fitzgerald knew the early landfills of New York, and put one in The Great Gatsby:

[A] valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

Fresh Kills on Staten Island might have auditioned for Fitzgerald. It sounds like a perfect name for a dump, but “kill” is a Dutch word for stream. Once a landfill that became the largest manmade structure in the world, having been reopened to take the rubble of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Fresh Kills has now been plugged and capped; it is being metamorphosed over time into an urban park, where the water may once again be clean. The same has happened at the equally well-named (and one-time premier gull spot) Mucking in Essex, England.

At the point we identify anything as waste, even though up until then it has been ours, we don’t want it and we don’t like it. Anything can arbitrarily become waste or dirt in this way. Dirt, in Mary Douglas’s memorable formulation (developing William James’s thoughts) in Purity and Danger, is simply “matter out of place.” And therefore places designated for dirt stir complicated emotions. “The waste remains,” wrote William Empson in his 1937 poem “Missing Dates.” The phrase is an infectious refrain that slides through the villanelle: “the waste remains and kills.” But waste doesn’t necessarily kill—it can nourish and sustain. Dumps where plastic junk lives on horribly, and toxins persist, are also strangely lively places. We are a waste-making species like no other, but we are also workers of waste: recyclers, ragpickers, archivists, librarians, archaeologists, historians, bricoleurs, and gullers.

For several winters, I went ringing gulls at Pitsea landfill in Essex, furling them under an arm, their beaks to my back, so I could fix rings on their legs to keep track of individuals. I spent other days counting urban breeding gulls on city rooftops across Britain. I watched summer roosts and winter roosts on reservoirs and gravel pits. I tracked gull flightlines from the top of double decker buses. I read rings on any birds I saw anywhere. I pored over the mind-numbingly detailed field guides that pro gullers have memorized. I stood close to them and their telescopes, trying to absorb something of their acuity and their passion. I spent days online looking at their field photography. I tested myself alone on muddy beaches, and blasted sea-watches, in city parks, and gutted factories. I watched what might have been Chekhov’s seagull begging for scraps on the terrace of his little seaside cabin in the Crimea. I ate the soft-boiled eggs of a black-headed gull; they tasted like a tart marsh. And I did see a yellow-legged gull, or rather was shown one, then several. While they were in front of me I could tell them apart; now I am not sure. I have yet to clinch a Caspian.

Phil Penman

Coney Island, Brooklyn, March 2012

Gulls in cities are doing well, but surviving coastal populations are not. And food for all the birds is looking meager. Populations boomed during the throwaway decades of the 1960s and 1970s. But along the coast, fish processing has all but finished, and ended a source of gull food. Waste barges with their headaches of hungry gulls no longer float down an open sewer from London to Essex. The dumps are being grassed over and converted into parks. Recycling or incineration of food waste is now commonplace, and edible trash in landfills is rare. The men who go to Pitsea landfill to trap and ring gulls must negotiate with the garbage men, holding back a truck with restaurant leftovers until they have readied their ringing nets.

We desire a cleaner world, for ourselves and for wildlife. Because we have gotten better at managing our trash, there are salmon and seahorses in the Thames near Pitsea, and that is surely good. But for species that have come to depend on our garbage, these efforts are another change to which they must adapt. There has been a gull moment, and it is coming to an end.


On December 1, 1963, just two weeks after it had first appeared from beneath the sea off southern Iceland, gulls were seen to land on the cooling volcanic waste that was growing into the new island of Surtsey. They were the first life form to set foot on the newest addition to the land surface of the Earth. Thereafter, they continued to visit the bad black tooth, and in time they have turned it, in part at least, green. I can’t trace the specific identity of those first-footers, but five gull species have since bred on Surtsey: great black-backed gulls first reared young in 1974, kittiwakes in 1975, herring gulls in 1981, lesser black-backed gulls in 1983, and glaucous gulls in 1993. Most (apart from the kittiwakes) live in a busy mixed colony on the south side of the island. A count in 2003 noted 301 pairs of gulls, mostly lesser black-backeds.

All these gulls make nests, and on Surtsey they tore up the pioneer plant life to do so. But, as time went on, they also planted more. A study of soil development showed that, within their colony, the gulls transfer 45–50kg of nitrogen per hectare from sea to land every year, while the barren areas surrounding the colony receive only 1–2kg as atmospheric deposits. The birds fertilize the ground: they defecate, they regurgitate, and they drop food remains that they have found elsewhere, and their empty nests compost back into the deepening soil. They are landfilling.

I spent a day and a night on Surtsey in 2003 to mark the island’s fortieth birthday. The raw material of the Earth, the coughed-up guts of our planet, was still much in evidence. But the landscape was already aging and shrinking, its foundation stone eroding. The sea was eating at the island’s friable edges; it was half the size when I saw it that it had been in 1967 when the eruption stopped. I tried to trek its length. I felt as though I were walking an autopsy—Surtsey’s grizzled lava has a grey just beneath its skin that looks like death, with a few patches of urinous yellow and rust. My boots were shredded by the rough climb; I cut my hand on a lava snag. On the bald summit the sea wind’s harsh blow met foul air smoking from the hot cracks that riddle the rock. My head spun, my lips chapped. There were no birds.

I slid and skittered toward the south. There, in a sheltered bowl, wind baffled and out of earshot of the sea, the gulls had planted an extraordinary green sanctuary. A dozen lifted from their nests and ugg-ed at me. Their downy young were hidden in the long tangle of meadow grasses and plants. The gulls’ agitated grunts were the only sounds I could hear, and they stopped after I lay down on the soft bed the birds had made. I could smell the chicks, the warm dust from the cracking cases of their new feathers, the cooked greens that they shat, and the ozone-chlorine tang that their nearby parents gave off. The sky came blue above and the birds returning to their nests drifted silently overhead. And there, in the gulls’ nest, I fell asleep.

Phil Penman

Coney Island, Brooklyn, March 2012

This essay is an edited excerpt from Landfill, to be published in the UK in October by Little Toller Books.

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