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When gulls attack

They warn you about the seagulls in Falmouth.

If you’ve got food and are eating it at an exposed place like the quayside, there is every likelihood that the gulls will attack you and steal your food. I’ve heard talk of it in the pubs and the B&Bs, and I have seen it for myself – a young chap who’d got his dinner from the chippy (Harbour Lights, the best one in town) and was heading for a bench with a view out across the harbour when a gull swooped (swept?) down and hit him on the back of the head. He dropped his food, turned round to see who’d hit him, and when he turned back the main part of his dinner – a battered sausage so freshly cooked you could still see the steam coming off it – had gone, along with quite a few of the accompanying chips.

The good people of Falmouth – Britain’s most south-westerly port and a great place to visit – do not like the seagulls. They’d rather like there to be a cull, or some sort of means of keeping gull numbers under control, and earlier this year a West Country MP even managed to ask a question in the House of Commons about whether gulls could be culled. The answer was no, because internationally most species of gull are declining in numbers as there is less and less food for them at sea; perhaps that is why so many of them have started to look inland for something to eat. One species, the Herring Gull, has even made it onto the RSPB’s ‘Red List’ of threatened bird species, while the rest are on the ‘Amber List’ as their numbers have moderately declined over the last few years. Not that that’s any consolation to the lad who had his battered sausage nicked … by a Herring Gull.

There are four species of gulls that you will most likely encounter. There’s the Herring Gull, which is easily recognisable with its light grey back and wings and the distinctive yellow beak with a red spot. It will go just about anywhere for food; my copy of the RSPB Handbook of British Birds (third edition, 2010) describes it as having a “wide range of food, from offal and carrion to seeds and fruits … eats the young and eggs of other birds, catches small mammals, scavenges on shorelines and rubbish tips”. Smaller is the Black-headed Gull, so-called for the chocolate-brown hood that it has during the summer (don’t ask). Although they’re gulls, they’ve been fairly common inland for as long as I’ve been birding. And then there are the two black-backed ones, the Lesser Black-backed Gull (which has a dark grey back and wings) and the Greater Black-backed Gull (this one, our biggest gull, does indeed have a black back and wings). The Greater Black-backed Gull can be really vicious – it “hunts in a variety of ways and takes a wide range of food. Kills and eats young seabirds … robs others of their food, will catch fish or feed on carrion, either in the water or washed up on the shore … has been observed scavenging road kills. It will kill and eat mammals, such as rabbits.”

Although I’ve been told that gull attacks have been on the rise, they’re not a new thing by any means. At least, not in Cornwall. Back in the early Fifties, Daphne du Maurier wrote a short story, ‘The Birds’, about what happens when the birds – not just the gulls, but the crows and all manner of little garden birds – somehow co-ordinate attacks on people; “birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining with one another in their urge for battle”. Seen from the point of view of a Cornish farm labourer who tries to defend his family against the attacks, it’s a tale of suspense in which no-one seems to realise that, somehow, evolution is turning against mankind: “As he jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings. A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again. In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed … Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage. They kept coming at him from the air…”

Some say that Daphne du Maurier got the idea for this story after seeing someone attacked by a gull in St Ives, but the lady herself told the following story (in Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall) of how ‘The Birds’ came to be: “Walking down from Menabilly to the farm one day, I caught sight of the farmer on his tractor ploughing the fields, a cloud of screaming gulls circling above his head, and thought, ‘Supposing the gulls attacked!’ That picture started the brewing process...”

Alfred Hitchcock later made it into a famous film, and although he set that film in California (he being based in Hollywood) the fact remains that the original story is set, and was inspired by something that Daphne du Maurier saw and subsequently thought, in Cornwall.

I am not quite sure where the story about Daphne du Maurier witnessing someone being attacked by a gull in St Ives comes from, but to many it does ring true, for the gulls who frequent St Ives are to this day regarded as the worst offenders in terms of attacking people for food. Woe betide anyone who tries to eat their pastie while walking alongside the harbour there! It has to be said, though, that their Falmouth equivalents are catching them up.

They warn you about the seagulls in Falmouth.

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