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Seagulls and the City: The Dramas of Human-Gull Relationships in Brighton

Hannah Hunter

Queen’s University


Fig 1. Gulls at the remains of Brighton’s West Pier at sunset. Photo © Maït Foulkes, used with permission. Source: courtesy of Maït Foulkes

I often joke that my two greatest passions in life are birds and trashy TV. Most of the time, I’m thinking about birds- the extinct ones that are the subject of my PhD, the pigeons I watch on my balcony in the mornings, the migratory ducks that come and go on the lake near my flat. And when I’m not thinking about birds, I must admit, I’m probably thinking about TV. In particular, I am a fervent and somewhat guilty consumer of low cost, low stakes, high-turnover reality series like “The Bachelor”, “The Great British Bake Off”, and “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, all of which have spin-off series, multinational franchising, and endless associated podcasts to keep me busy when birds don’t.


My love for reality TV and my love for birds overlap more than you might expect. Firstly, there are often avian cameos on these shows. For instance, the spinoff series “Bachelor in Paradise” is riddled with b-roll footage of tropical birds, who are passively enrolled in the storytelling to exaggerate feelings of confusion, love, or humour. The efforts of “Bachelor” fans on social media to identify these birds can be considered a form of ‘digital birding’- that is, remote birdwatching, often aided by feeder cams, that allows birders to observe species which may be inaccessible to them otherwise.


During lockdown, I also found myself leaning on both birds and TV as sources of comfort- other worlds that I could escape into to distract myself from the pandemic. I am certainly not alone in these pursuits- Andrew Whitehouse’s post on this blog discussed the increased attention to local avian soundscapes in lockdown, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology revealed they have seen an “unprecedented” growth in users of their eBird app over the last 18 months. Similarly, an Ofcom study found that the first lockdown in the UK saw a 71% increase in video streaming service views as people turned to television as an antidote to isolation.


Beyond these cameos and correlations, though, might there be a way to productively connect birds and TV as winged geographers? Is there a way for me to somehow justify that my reality TV habit is not actually procrastination from my academic work?


Joking aside, I do think that some of the storytelling devices of television could prove useful for effectively sorting and communicating the tangles of human-nature relationships. In animal geography, we are tasked with telling stories that involve divergent characters, places, and plot points. Many scholars have been hugely successful in these efforts- storying, for instance, how ‘pigeons became rats’ in the urban imagination of New York City, how migratory birds and military ornithological pursuits shaped the British empire, and how digital streams of Peregrine Falcon nest-cams change how people relate to wild-lives in their cities. Telling these stories in ways that effectively and accessibly communicate complex more-than-human entanglements is no easy task, and there is certainly no ready-made formula available to do this.


What lessons can we learn from TV storytelling in these multispecies storytelling efforts? Reality TV, for all its faults, is excellent at organising the messes of humans, relationships, and daily life into fixed tropes that guide the audience as to what points to focus on, who to empathize with, who to malign, and what lessons to take away.


In this post, I will ask how we can explore the case of human-gull relationships in Brighton through the character and storyline tropes of a TV show. How might this be an illuminating, playful, and relatable way to story all that is at play in this more-than-human drama?


Celebrity, conflict, and fried chicken


One of the first things you will notice on a visit to Brighton are the seagulls: swooping down to steal your chips, screeching you awake early in the morning, their image plastered on the side of busses and postcards.[1] The local football team, Brighton & Hove FC, is nicknamed ‘the Seagulls’: this and their mascot ‘Gully’ is said to reference a tongue-in-cheek rallying cry against the Crystal Palace ‘Eagles’ in 1975. Seagull graffiti can be found on many city corners, and the local government even uses a hardhat and high-vis cladded seagull in its railway improvement signs. If this were a TV show, seagulls would certainly be the celebrity stars.



Fig. 2 A seagull-studded piece of ‘Brighton’ graffiti on Cannon Place, Brighton. Photographed by the author in August 2021. Source: photographed by the author in August 2021

The relationship between Brighton’s humans and actual gulls, though- in all their feathery, fleshy presence- is less celebratory. For some, seagulls are the villains of this urban soap opera. A scan of local and national newspapers in the summer months reveals a consistent characterization of gulls as menacing, pooping, chip-stealing, dive-bombing, morally corrupt perpetrators of neighbourhood havoc. The “victims” of such “crimes” are “innocent children”, “women” and “unsuspecting visitors” whom gulls “target” and “gang up on”. This victim-perpetrator narrative is not restricted to Brighton- Sarah Trotter’s 2019 study of UK councils’ responses to urban gulls shows how they are near-universally constructed as “birds behaving badly”. Consistent with the TV-villain stereotype, gulls are outsiders- part of ‘nature’ rather than the ‘city’- that are thought to threaten the order and civility of society.


Fig. 3 A group of gulls descend on an unfinished toasted sandwich on the Brighton seafront. Photo taken by the author in August 2021. Source: photographed by the author in August 2021

As with any good character-driven TV show, however, these villains have a tragic backstory that complicates our feelings towards them. Though they seem abundant in Britain’s cities, gulls are not as ecologically thriving as they might appear. For instance, European Herring Gulls are in population decline owing to complex factors including wind turbine collision, botulism, and reduction in food supply. The latter is a major reason that gulls have been drawn into cities, as the increase in rubbish following the post-war consumer boom and the 1956 Clean Air act mean that gulls may find more success in finding food on land than at sea.[2] Indeed, it is certainly not a rare sight in Brighton to see gulls feed on leftover chicken and chips left beside rubbish bins.


Their perceived abundance and menacing characterology have led to calls for a gull cull in the UK. However, owing to their threatened status, gulls are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This fact is cited in many news articles discussing the gull ‘problem’, for instance an article about “killer seagulls” and their “intimidating pack mentality” lamented that there is “not much that can be done about the terror-inducing situation” because of the act. Legal anti-gull infrastructure such as nets, spikes, and egg oiling have proven insufficient to deter entire urban populations.[3] Brighton humans are thus forced to continue to cohabit with seagulls, who, consistent with the ‘Tragic Villain’ archetype, wreak apparent urban havoc through no fault of their own.


Star-crossed friendships and seagull social media stars


However, not everyone finds this forced multispecies cohabitation so lamentable. As part of my master’s research in 2019, I interviewed anonymous Brighton residents who reported to have built “friendships” with wild gulls through feeding or other acts of care. Here, I will provide a snapshot of some of these stories.


Most of the human participants did not set out as seagull lovers but built relationships with particular birds over time as they visited the humans’ windows. The window offered a solid but transparent “contact zone” at which both parties could safely meet and negotiate what followed[4]. For instance, Harry recalled his childhood in Brighton when he initially had a real fear of gulls. However, he would sit and watch the gulls nesting in his garden from his bedroom window, ‘talking to them in his head’ and eventually building up the courage to start feeding them. Others negotiated this window boundary differently. For instance, shutting the window quickly after offering the gull food to avoid being ‘attacked’, opening the window partially to feed frequent gull visitors with chopsticks, or even letting gulls come through the window: Tara responded to a gull that was ‘knocking on the window’ by opening it, offering them food, and allowing the bird to sleep on a chest of drawers. These negotiations were not just one sided- Alex and Rachel both explained that some gulls would fly away as soon as they opened the windows to feed them, whereas others- those they ended up naming and caring for- would stay.


Almost all participants did not feed all gulls- or even claim to be a fan of gulls in general- but instead built-up relationships with specific birds over time. The facts of gulls’ nonhuman charisma - their relatively large size, diurnal nature, ability to fly, habituation in urban spaces, and tendency to dwell alone or in mating pairs- contribute to their individual detectability and thus the possibility for individuation. For instance, participants were able to recognise things like “a red tip on his beak”, “distinct markings under one eye” and “feisty” personalities that separate ‘their’ gulls from others. Most participants named these particular gulls, their mating partners and their offspring, and would feed and care for them over many months or even years.


Given the potential fines and social stigma associated with feeding gulls, we might think of this as a platonic star-crossed lover storyline- a friendship between individuals of two different worlds (‘the wild’ and ‘the urban’) that is forbidden by society, but that flourishes all the same. [5]


Fig. 4 A Brighton gull’s personality on display! Source: courtesy of Maït Foulkes

Often gulls were given names commonly associated with ‘British blokes’ like ‘Barry’, ‘Kevin’, and ‘Steve’, nodding towards the comedic undertones of almost every kind of human-gull encounter I observed. Even in cases where participants regularly cared for gulls, they would often giggle or downplay their relationships when I asked more serious questions. For instance, Alex laughed when I asked him about his “relationship” with his gull, explaining that it’s “more of a comedy kind of thing”. Although his encounters with his gull were care-full- he would regularly feed it and had a name for it- he didn’t take these encounters very seriously. For Alex, this relationship was a fun pastime as well as a hilarious addition to his social media feed that his friends loved to see.


Sharing funny gull stories online was also a core feature of other participants’ gull encounters- two of whom even had Facebook ‘fan pages’ for their gulls, where followers could check for updates.[6] The comedic effect of gulls was also clear in other contexts, for instance, participants talked about the hilarity of seeing gulls steal food from tourists or defecate on commuters. Gulls, perhaps owing to their perceived ‘out-of-placeness’, offer a particular kind of comic relief in this urban multispecies drama, a story in which they also seem to be the lead, the villain, the victim, and the platonic love interest.


From cliff-dweller to cliff-hanger?


In this epic drama of seagulls and the city, though, we must remember that every story has an end - love, cry, and laugh all you might, birds are already some of the greatest victims of anthropogenic climate change, and many species of British Gull are in decline. And yet, cities across the world continue to vilify their urban birds.[7] Perhaps it is time for a new storyline- a plot twist in which gulls and other purported nuisances like pigeons and starlings become widely embraced as valued members of vibrant, more-than-human cities.


What would Brighton be, after all, without its seagulls?


[1] Seagull’ is a colloquial, umbrella term that refers to many Gull species, including the Herring Gull, Black-Headed Gull, and Lesser Black-Backed Gull.


[2] Rock, P. (2005). Urban gulls: problems and solutions. British Birds, 98, pp. 338-355.

[3] Trotter, S. (2019). Birds Behaving Badly: The Regulation of Seagulls and the Construction of Public Space. Journal of Law and Society, 46 (1), pp. 1-28.


[4] Haraway, D.J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


[5] Feeding gulls is discouraged as it is thought to make them more accustomed to humans and lead to more attacks, and to lure gulls to highly populated areas where they might be loud and defecate on buildings. Feeding gulls can and has resulted in Anti-social behaviour orders.


[6] The recent viral success of FeedingSteven- a series in which a TikTok user attempted to befriend a gull at their window- is a more recent example of the intrigue and humour surrounding such encounters.


[7] Several animal geographers have storied and problematized these kinds of urban avian vilifications. For instance, regarding the Australian White Ibis, feral pigeons in New York City, and urban ‘Swiftlet farming’ in George Town, Malaysia.

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