Black-headed gulls

Posted: Wednesday 2 January 2013
by Richard Jones

I once had a relationship-threatening close encounter with a herring gull in St James’s Park, but I gloss over that here. It is the black-headed gull that you are most likely to see far inland.

Black-headed gulls in Dulwich park

I’ve just come back from visiting my parents, who live in Newhaven, on the Sussex coast, between Brighton and Eastbourne; there were lots of gulls in their garden. As they live only about a mile from the pebble beaches of Seaford Bay, this is hardly surprising. And since there are lots of them, and they’re very noisy, and messy, and untidy, it’s also hardly surprising that they’re not exactly welcomed. In fact, in Newhaven, they are regarded as a bit of a pest.

Despite viral internet videos of gulls attacking children to get at their ice-creams, or raiding hand-held fish and chips, the main bone of contention (and it is very often a bone they’re contending), is that they rip open bin-bags and scatter the contents over the front lawn. It’s all very antisocial.

We get the occasional seagull in our East Dulwich garden but, maybe its because Southwark Council have banished bin-bags by the imposition of fleets of different coloured wheelie bins, they are not common, and they have not yet reached pest proportions. In fact, London’s gulls are still something of a novelty, despite the maritime nature of the tidal Thames.

I once had a relationship-threatening close encounter with a herring gull in St James’s Park, but I gloss over that here. It is the black-headed gull that you are most likely to see far inland. Indeed, many books make the point that it cannot really be called a ‘sea’ gull. These are the raucous white spots attentively following the tractor as it ploughs the dark lowland soil, and they are the flecks of white that litter a rather water-logged Dulwich Park and Peckham Rye as I take a year-end cycle round my local manor.

Today, no-one bats an eye at them, but things were not always so. Black-headed gulls only started to appear in urban and suburban London about 100 years ago. It was something of an exciting wildlife spectacle. Writing in 1909, Charles Dixon describes the rapidly increasing gull expansion into the capital in his popular book Birdlife of London. He is rather bemused at the enthusiastic crowds feeding the gulls from central London bridges. When a ‘youth’ grabs one that unsuspecting lands on his arm, and is about to make off with it, a police constable steps in to remonstrate. “The poacher was within his rights, but sentiment became too strong even for legality!”

In summer the black-headed gull lives up to its name, but it is the winter-plumaged pale-headed form that now visits gardens attracted to bird tables and scattered scraps on the lawn. There has been some consternation recently as this bird seems to be declining around the coasts. It now seems that inland colonies outnumber coastal ones. Even so, I doubt the epithet ‘garden gull’ will ever stick.

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oldchippy 05/01/2013 at 17:36

Richard I had a Black Cap feeding on my Callicarpa berries today.Looking on the RSPB website it seem they are spending winters in England,Before Christmas there a Hen Black Cap in the same bush (with a brown head).We get quite an amount of Gul's most probably from the filter bed's and land fill at Beddington Croydon.

flowering rose 06/01/2013 at 15:03

here in Bristol the black headed gull lives on small island on the Severn and fly in when the weather is bad(or they are search of food since man pinches theirs)I forget the name of the island but its very small.They come to my shed when I leave bread for them and its gone in instant,they are splendid birds up close .We also get blackhead gulls that have been coming each winter to the common and to the lake but thier numbers are less with the increase of people in the area.