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Why I'll be glad to see back of our feathered friends for another year

Soon the lesser black-backed gull will depart the NI skyline for the winter ... and Professor John Wilson Foster for one can't wait

Published 13/09/2016

The lesser black-backed gull
The lesser black-backed gull
Professor John Wilson Foster

Before long, the lesser black-backed gulls will depart our shores for wherever they spend their winter. Not a moment too soon. I am counting the days. For the first time in my life, I have become infuriated with a bird and do believe I could cheerfully throttle it.

Soon I will be able to leave a bedroom window open on a warm night without being awakened before dawn by the high-pitched cacophony of what can only be called gangs of Larus fuscus announcing this, alleging that, disputing the other.

In August and early September the gulls drown out the wrens and robins, lonely remnant singers of the muted post-nesting season dawn chorus.

Alas, some gulls burn their candles at both ends, bedding down only in the small hours of the morning, late-night noisy revellers on the wing, contemptuous equally of the darkness, the city council's noise control regulations and the human inhabitants abed.

I say they will depart our shores, but I do believe that most of these smartly-dressed riff-raff never even paddle, let alone swim, or even set their needlessly webbed foot on the seashore at all.

I remember the lesser black-back of my boyhood in Belfast as uncommon, rather shy summer visitants to the River Lagan, a welcome alternative to the brasher herring gull. How and why they transformed Dr Jeykll-like into Mr Hydes of the city rooftops is a mystery to me.

It is true that they are not alone in their conversion to the city. When I was a boy, I had to go far into the country to spot goldfinches, then inhabitants of untended fields and thistle-strewn waste ground. Now their exotic black and yellow garb looks like polite suburban attire in the back-gardens to which they now flock.

I had to leave Belfast, too, to see magpies and hooded crows. Now both are urban bandits, having lost their wariness and become emboldened around habitation and humans. They too are noisy like the gulls as if you have to kick up a racket to survive in the asphalt jungle.

For a few decades these scavenging crows have ruled the rooftops and bullied birds smaller or more pacific than themselves. But now this new set of local migrants has moved in and taken over - bigger, handsomer and tougher.

They give the crows short but noisy shrift; gulls have become the new yahoos of the chimney-pots on which they perch deep into twilight, challenging all and sundry.

And what a bulging arsenal of aggressive vocalisations they have at their beck and call. Threatening wails as they glide, a variety of cat-callings, and then the self-satisfied nickerings when they land. But worst of all - though fine and dandy at the breezy seashore when you need to make yourself heard against the wind and the breakers - is the elaborate throwing up of the head and the series of ear-splitting jeers directed no doubt at neighbouring fellows but as if at the world in general.

Larus fuscus has taken especially to the Victorian rooftops of south Belfast with their ornate chimney-scape, with which I have newly become familiar, because I am at chimney-pot level in my new apartment four storeys up. But what were once elegant single-family dwellings built and inhabited by Belfast's industrial middle-management have declined into offices, student digs, or, even worse, sunk into dereliction (though there is now some post-recession attempts at renovation and gentrification).

I cannot help but see the intrusion of the lesser black-backed and herring gulls as part of the suburban decline. Scavenging is a form of self-help begging and this is what the gulls do now on the streets and in the skips instead of at the seashore where it seemed less like scavenging than acting naturally.

With fascination I have watched them for the first time this spring absurdly nesting (if that could be the word) among the earthenware crenellations. The improbably huge nestlings spend weeks in their precarious abode and I have yet to spot them reaching the ground as fledglings before being able to take wing. But since I see no corpses I assume they make it safely - next season's disturbers of the peace.

The lessers are of course part of a larger picture. Just as peregrine falcons saw high-rise buildings as faux cliffs, and nested and roosted there, so, too, now have the gulls - and I - seen glaucous-winged gulls (the herring gulls of the North American west coast) raise young on the generous ledges of older multi-storey buildings in downtown Vancouver.

What is happening amid the chimney-scape of south Belfast is an interesting variation on an international gull phenomenon.

And, of course, herring gulls have become aggressive nuisances in English seaside resorts, scavenging become begging and then chugging with threats.

The lessers too have become bolder. I recently watched one determined fellow try to catch a swift. Admittedly the quest was a hopeless one and perhaps the swift was smirking in flight, but I was impressed at how long he maintained the pursuit, sometimes coming within a few feet of the forked tail.

Perhaps the lessers are exhibiting a growing intolerance in their new habitat.

An acquaintance was dive-bombed in another part of south Belfast by the gulls nesting on the neighbouring housetops. The rooftop zone is increasingly being divided in breeding season into small urban patches to be stoutly defended.

I will watch this winter to see if the herring gulls, less common denizens of the chimney-scape, desert the rooftops for other parts. But where the lessers go in September and what they do there I must make it my business to find out.

They are seasonal migrants and I want to know how and where they spend what I assume must nowadays be their noisy winter of discontent.

  • John Wilson Foster is Honorary Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University, Belfast. His book about the legendary American passenger pigeons, Pilgrims of the Air (Notting Hill Editions), was published in 2014

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