News & Opinion

Wildlife hell

Are Birds the New Sharks? The Danger From Above

The Daily Beast

July 16, 2015

Emily Vincent, who lives in St. Columb Minor, near Newquay in Cornwall in the U.K., is understandably very upset.

Her Yorkshire terrier, Roo, was, she says, pecked to death by ‘marauding’ herring gulls who are nesting on the roof of her home.

But Vincent cannot do anything to displace the gulls, who are a protected species; indeed, it is illegal to disturb their nests.

And so she must feel under siege, and anyone who has ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and what those gulls did to poor Tippi Hedren’s bouffant, will sympathize—and probably be terrified all over again.

Britain’s Mirror reports that the aftermath of the pecking attack looked to Vincent like ‘a murder scene.’ Roo suffered a head wound and brain damage, and later died of a brain hemorrhage.

Vincent, the Mirror says, “now fears for the safety of her [four] children” and her “two Maltese Terriers Millie and Louis.” (Vincent did not respond to a request for an interview with The Daily Beast.)

The attack on Roo came after a 5-month old Chihuahua was attacked and killed by seagulls in Honiton, Devon.

Peter Rock, the pre-eminent expert on gulls in Europe, told The Daily Beast it was most likely that Roo was attacked, “not pecked to death,” while straying near the nest, or one of the chicks from the nest.

“At this time of year attacks are common,” said Rock. It is fledgling season, the end of the breeding season. The parent birds have mated, incubated eggs, and are caring for their young offspring prior to the latter about to fly for the first time.

In short, the gull parents are feeling extremely territorial and protective. Go near their nests, and they will not be best pleased, as poor Roo found out.

Rock said the numbers of pairs of gulls in urban areas in Britain is dramatically increasing, and they are nesting on rooftops, bringing them into contact with humans and their pets.

Rock said there has been a corresponding increase in the number of attacks, with herring gulls known to be particularly aggressive.

“They will go for the back of your head, and unlike what people think, they do not attack with their beaks but with their feet, which they have manicured perfectly sharply on rooftops.”

Gulls are thriving in towns, because they’re much safer than the wilds; streetlights at night allow them to forage.

Rock laughed. “There was this wonderful story of a gull in Felixstowe [in Suffolk], known as Psycho. He was a dope. He’d built his nest on the ground instead of on a roof and attacked everyone who walked past him, instead of eating, sleeping, and doing all the other fine things in life.”

Rock said that his 30 years of research meant he has come to know the signs of when a gull is about to attack him. “I’ve learnt to listen out to what the gulls are saying to me. There is always a warning call, we call it ‘a gag call’ because it sounds like ‘gag-gag-gag,’ which is to tell you to get out of their territory.

“Then they will begin a series of low passes, swooping down towards you, which looks like an attack but isn’t. The third stage is they will crap all over you, or regurgitate their last meal all over you.

“The final bit is the attack itself, from behind usually and with their feet. If you look at the bird, it won’t hit you, but—and they typically attack as a pair—they will fly and fly around you until they see their opening to strike you.”

They also have an attack call, which, says Rock, sounds like “Wooo-roh,” but birdier—which, if you hear it, means you’re about to get viciously dive-bombed.

The problem of bird attacks is not restricted to the UK, of course. John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington in Seattle and an expert on corvids—crows, ravens, jackdaws and the like—said there had been an increase of attacks on people by angry crows during fledgling season.

“They dive-bomb people who come by their nests,” Professor Marzluff told The Daily Beast. “In the country crows know that they are at risk of the farmer and his or her shotgun. In the city people don’t shoot birds, and without that negative reinforcement, they have become very bold.”

As with the British herring gulls, the attacks come from adult birds and “involve the defense of young and defense of territory. They see the person as an intruder.”

Of the attacks, Marzluff has studied, crows are the biggest aggressors, but also owls. Owls! Wow, do not be fooled by those big eyes and “twit-twoo.”

Indeed, an owl allegedly attacked a 5-year-old Chihuahua in Traverse City, Michigan, last year.

Marzluff recommends the use of an umbrella as a shield, or wearing a mask on the back of your head or a hat as protection, because crows, like gulls, will attack you from the back.

“What you don’t want to do with a crow is to act as the aggressor. They will remember you, and attack you again later, even if you’re not threatening their young.”


“We caught some birds nine years ago, showed them a mask, and they recognize the face whenever we show them it again. We also know they pass on this knowledge to their social circle.”

Meaning if you fight back against one crow in Seattle, you run the risk of not only being attacked by it for nine years afterwards, but also all of its buddies.

“They remember the fear they feel over that face in the amygdala part of their brain, the same place we do,” said Marzluff.

Some cities, Marzluff said, had put up warning signs where bird attacks had been common, especially from mid-March through July, which is breeding season.

“But like gulls, these are not unprovoked attacks,” he added. “They only attack when it pays off. They do not want to put themselves at risk. The birds are not taking over.”

Yet urban bird numbers are increasing. Rock said Seabird 2000, the last major study of inland gull colonies in 2000 in the UK, had located 239 in urban centers.

He is undertaking a 2015 counterpart study and has already counted 472, with many more areas left to investigate.

The rise in herring gull numbers is down to a number of factors, Rock noted. The birds can both fly very fast (up to 62 mph, he says), and can live up to 35 years old, with a breeding career of 10 years, laying three eggs a year. 95 percent of hatched gulls reach adulthood.

There is not much love for gulls in Britain. Last year, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds failed in its attempt to stop a cull of lesser black-backed gulls and herring gulls in Lancashire.

Netting is put on roofs to stop them nesting, but the gulls merely find other roofs without netting to settle on. A planned government study of the scale of the gull population has been scotched in the UK, which is “short-sighted,” Rock said, and pest control of gulls is ill thought-out.

“If we are going to make informed decisions about management of these birds, we need to find out what makes them tick.”

We should not take the frenzy of The Birds too literally, Rock added.

Unprovoked attacks by birds are an anathema. “Think about if you were a parent, and you perceived any threat to your children: that is why these birds attack. They do not want conflict. Conflict is very risky for them—it could mean they damage themselves. They are not stupid thugs.

“When they attack, it is because they feel endangered themselves, and they plan their attack with care. With gulls, you don’t see aggressiveness carried out for the sake of aggressiveness.”

Rock laughed softly. “You only see that with humans.”