At a fishing cart, a woman takes a herring between her thumb and forefinger and the moment she wants to taste it, the seagull strikes. He lands on her face, his paws slide over her cheek and grabs the fish with his beak. It happened at the Vispaleis in the port of Scheveningen, and the video of the attack was viewed two million times in two days. The date, October 19, 2022, is noteworthy: gulls usually exhibit this behavior during the breeding season when they feed their hungry young. It had a stage outside The birds (1963) could be by Hitchcock.
Aggressive seagulls “affect the well-being and well-being of residents,” says Martin van den Hoorn, urban ecologist for the municipality of The Hague. ‘Terror gulls’ attack a herring wagon or fish stall, tear open garbage bags and disturb the night’s sleep with their calls. In other cities near the coast and the dune areas, the nuisance is also great: Leiden, Alkmaar, Katwijk, Haarlem and Amsterdam. There are two species, the herring gull (Larus argentatus) and the lesser gull (Larus fucus), both protected by European law. The first is present all year round, the second migrates to warmer regions after the breeding season.
Councilor Coen Bom van Hart for The Hague has tried for years to expel the bird from the city – ‘Generally aggressive seagull chicks are running out of steam’, reads the slogan of his party. Contraception would be the solution, says Bom on the phone. “Owners of the fish shops in Scheveningen insist that something must be done.”
Contraception means that feed for birds, especially corn kernels, is coated with the active substance nicarbazine. This prevents the embryo from developing. This has successfully stopped the number of pigeons in cities such as Brussels and Antwerp.
But does this also apply to seagulls? “The plan is definitely worth it,” says Bom, who “is not necessarily against seagulls”, but believes that the nuisance for urban seagulls should be limited. He realizes, he says, that contraception is an “unkind word.” “But that’s not what I mean. It’s better for the birds themselves, because the competition for food is fierce.”
Mars Muusse is a seagull connoisseur and enthusiast and wrote an identification guide about the bird species. One early morning in December, we meet in Scheveningen’s Eerste Binnenhaven, just around the corner from the Vispaleis, from the film. Muusse: “That seagull was a specialist. Not all seagulls are like this, some are. They know exactly when to strike and how to scare people into letting go of the herring, fries or skewer – and then they can grab it.”
Speaking of specialization, Muusse gives an example from his hometown of Katwijk: the pair of seagulls Bonnie and Clyde live there. They operate together to steal Hema sausage from the people walking through the shopping street while eating. Clyde scares them into dropping the sausage, and Bonnie follows right behind.
Deprived of habitat
According to Muusse, contraception is useless: you cannot feed seagulls at fixed times, like pigeons. There is always one goblin in a group who eats everything. There are about thirty gulls on the harbor side, of which only three are adults and the rest are young. You can see this from the brownish feathers: “Nobody knows what birth control will do to these young birds, which only start breeding when they are three or four years old. We know from skill tests that the Hague birds come from the colony on the Maasvlakte, they come here by ten thousand a day. In autumn and winter we mainly see seagulls from Russia, Norway and the Baltic states in Dutch cities. So which population groups do you target with contraception?”
No real research has ever been done on seagulls, says Muusse. So we don’t know if females react differently than males – and how. In addition, other birds can also peck at the food, which affects their reproduction.
Seagull control goes back more than a century, as evidenced by the bird monograph The herring gull (2018) by marine ecologist Kees Camphuysen. In this he describes the fierce battle of people, including ornithologists, against the seagull. Poisoning, shooting, removing eggs or shaking them so they don’t hatch: these are all part of the arsenal. The seagull was also fought because the egg- and chick-stealing seagull threatened other bird species such as eider, tern, common tern and sandpiper with extinction. He was like a double nuisance: to man and to the birds themselves.
Not everyone thinks so, there are many bird watchers who consider seagulls to be ‘the jewels of the dune and the beach’, as Camphuysen describes his favorite bird species. Muusse also speaks fondly of these “fascinating and beautiful birds”. He lays the blame not so much on the birds themselves, but on humans. Because why do seagulls flock to the city in such large numbers? Muusse: “Man has robbed them of their natural habitat in the coastal region. There is actually no room for seagulls. The port area of Rotterdam, where huge colonies used to be, is constantly being expanded, scaring away seagulls. And for several years now the fox has settled there, an effective seagull killer.”
And, he asks rhetorically, “can you blame seagulls for migrating to the city? Since wasteful people throw more and more food in garbage bags and put it on the street, they have discovered a new food source. They are intelligent animals.”
According to The Hague city ecologist Martin van den Hoorn, an even bigger problem has emerged in recent decades: “The seagull prefers to breed in open areas covered with pebbles or shells and in the dunes. But due to increased recreation and construction, this is hardly possible any longer safely and undisturbed.”
Clever as they are, the seagulls found new breeding grounds, as did the oysters: gravel roofs in the city. They are reminiscent of their original breeding grounds. Preferably slightly sheltered against a chimney or the edge of the roof.
“You cannot tackle this problem easily,” says the ecologist. “During the breeding season from the end of May to the end of August, the roof-nesting gulls make their calls almost continuously, day and night. They find people scary. It leads to serious sleep disturbances.” Van den Hoorn cites harrowing cases of people going to bed in the bathroom or being attacked on their roof terrace or balcony by seagulls defending their territory and their young. In addition, they are forced to keep their windows closed, even in high summer.
What does the underappreciated seagull call actually sound like? Maybe beautiful. In his book, Camphuysen reproduces the call phonetically: “Oh! Ouch! Kjiiii aukjaukjaukjaukjau!” In musical notation, he describes the sound as follows: “Lento/mezzo forte at the beginning, a screaming interlude (forte) and an allegretto at the end. In 2/4 time.”
The Hague municipality commissions counts to map both the number of breeding cases and noise nuisance. People can report nuisance caused by seagulls on a website. Surveying roof nests is expensive and can only be done by plane, for only two weeks per breeding season, when almost all birds are on the nests. Before that, during nest building and afterwards, when the young are fed, there are too many flight movements.
In 2010 and 2017, official counts recorded 720 and 1,359 nests respectively. The latter figure is estimated to have risen to more than 1,400. In 2021, 1,061 reports were received about seagull genes. Around 95 percent of the complaints were about noise nuisance and 164 explicitly about sleep problems.
Both Van den Hoorn and Muusse see only one solution: ensure that seagulls have sufficient safe nesting sites on the ground, fenced off so that foxes cannot enter. Because gulls cannot be controlled, existing colonies in areas such as Rotterdam’s harbor area should be protected and expanded. If a place is safe, it has an attractive effect.
Another option, according to Van den Hoorn, is an experimental option: to breed the hundreds of young seagulls that are raised every year in the bird shelter in The Hague in a protected dune area. “In the hope that they will breed there when they are adults.”
So much opposition to seagulls also evokes compassion. The birds belong to the Netherlands, to the beach, the dunes and the harbours. “If you think from the seagull’s point of view and want to learn to understand it, we have caused its behavior ourselves,” says Muusse. “There is far too little nature left for these birds.”