Urban Gulls: In Depth

For many years now some gull species have begun nesting on the flat roof sections of buildings in and around Edinburgh. Nobody knows the reason but gulls are abandoning their traditional nesting sites in favour of cities and towns. It seems to be a modern phenomenon. In the 1930s Daphne du Maurier observed it in Cornwall and this was the basis of her book, ‘The Birds’, which became the famous Hitchcock movie. The action of escaped mink has been blamed. Urban food sources have been blamed but studies of gut content in urban gulls in Dumfries indicated that though they may be observed opportunistically eating food waste discarded by humans their diet remains marine-based. Gulls can easily fly 30 miles daily in search of food.

What are the problems?

  • Gulls are a social species and rapidly form colonies, presenting severe problems for residents during August in particular when the chicks have hatched and they begin learning to fly.
  • Some years ago on one tenement roof in Montpelier, Bruntsfield, 19 nests were found. This represents 38 adults and since each pair will hatch 2-3 chicks, potentially a total of 76-114 individuals on just one roof.
  • The chicks are at their most vulnerable in late summer as they are at last mobile and not fully under the adults’ control yet are inexperienced and unwary. At this point the parents are at their most aggressive, having invested huge amounts of time and effort since April or May rearing a near-viable creature.
  • The chicks may land in a back garden and not be visible to humans, behind a wall or a hedge, even behind a parked car in the street, yet the parents having a ‘birds-eye view’ of the chick will be fully aware of the imagined danger and attempt to attack the unsuspecting human in order to deter them away from their chick. A huge commotion can arise as the parent will also enlist the help of other members of the colony to deter the human with noise, circling, and swooping. Gulls will circle overhead squawking like mad while the parent gulls will swoop lower and lower and eventually even attack the human on the back of the head if they do not get out of the way. (Gulls know that we can’t see at the back of our heads and that this ‘blind’ spot is where we are most vulnerable. They are crafty).
  • Roofers and others have been known to sustain concussion from such attacks, often requiring stitches. Gulls can weigh up to three pounds and the force of a beaked object of that weight kamikazying in at you 20 mph can be considerable. Humans have even died falling off roofs as a result of such attacks. Gulls have attacked elderly residents in wheelchairs at old folks homes when residents were parked outside by staff to enjoy the garden and a gull chick has landed. Babies placed in buggies or baby pens in gardens outside to enjoy the sunshine can face the same risk. I first became really alarmed by the risk posed by gulls when a number of years ago I heard a commotion out in my back garden and went to investigate. I observed that a small child placed in the garden to play by parents who had thought it was a safe, car-free area, had toddled over to an injured gull chick that had fallen or flown off a roof, (in order, I think, to pet it), and was about to be attacked by angry gulls.
  • Cats and other creatures can also be a source of interest or alarm to gulls, so that in the height of summer when we most want to enjoy our gardens the noise of squawking gulls can become unbearable. Gulls have also been known to kill and even eat cats and small dogs. I have personally observed a gull pair swoop down on a frozen chicken placed on a window ledge to thaw out, seizing it between them.
  • A friend tells me that in Caithness where he is from, as in other coastal farming communities, gulls were known to farmers as a menace to new-born lambs as they would peck out their eyes. As a method of control, farmers in East Lothian used to set off from Dunbar in boats in April or May to the low-lying islands of the Forth to shoot gulls.

Environmental Health

Besides noise, and physical attacks, gulls spread a whole host of pathogens. Their faeces spread cryptosporidium, e-coli, botulism, and campylobacter. Gulls also use their faeces as attack weapons, so that these pathogens may be present near food outlets, street cafes, butchers and fishmongers where gulls may be nesting nearby and encountering humans going about their daily life.

The Law

  • The Wildlife Protection Act considers that urban nesting gulls are a pest and can be controlled provided the permission of the property owner is obtained and provided the action taken is humane. Accordingly, each year Scottish Natural Heritage issues a ‘general licence’ for individuals and firms to be able to take control action against urban gull species. It would be illegal to interfere with gulls or their nests or eggs in the wild, but not in built-up areas where they pose a threat to humans. Gull numbers are not declining overall, though their numbers in the wild are.
  • Gulls are only an urban problem though if they are NESTING. Many gull species visit Edinburgh and pose no problem at all. The gulls which are nesting in Edinburgh are one particular species – the Lesser Black-Backed Gull.

Lesser Black Backed Gull:What can be done?

  • Despite gulls being a very public problem posing both a direct threat to humans as well as a noise nuisance, citizens’ success in getting councils to undertake controls have been limited. Councils tend to argue that ‘there’s nothing that can be done’, ‘it’s not actually a specific statutory duty’ or ‘it’s on private property, it’s a private problem’ (even though gulls take their ‘problem’ far beyond the private roofs they are nesting on).
  • However, there is actually quite a lot that can be done, and it is cheap, effective, and no gulls need be harmed.
  • By repeatedly removing nesting material from roofs from April onwards gulls will eventually disperse and give up attempting to nest on a particular roof. You will have perfect peace by July and August. Colonies dispersed by such means will not re-form the following year as the dislodged gull pairs will not return to a roof where they have been successfully dislodged. Their instinct to return to that roof will have been broken.
  • However, as gulls are a social species, forming colonies, wider areas than just your own roof will have to be tackled. Therefore, you need to mobilise a co-ordinated action with your neighbours to ensure that your whole street or wider area is done.
    Action must continue until no evidence of nesting material is discovered. If after several visits none is found you can be reassured that the gulls have quit.
  • When you first remove nesting material the gull will replace it, making a new nest nearby. It will keep on doing so until either you, or it, gives up. But once it gives up its instinct to return to that roof will be broken and it will not return. Gulls which have successfully bred at a certain location will be more difficult to dislodge than new ones which have recently joined the colony. Gulls live for about 20 years and are fully adult at 3 years, when they begin breeding. They mate for life. They hatch 2-3 chicks a year.
  • This is why repeat action is needed until you are reassured they have given up. Eggs are laid anytime between April and June; by mid-June they would not attempt to lay as there would be insufficient time left in the season to rear chicks.
  • So I would recommend at least three visits to remove nesting material plus any eggs, one in April, another in May, the last in mid-June. More visits would be helpful, every fortnight, but time and access might be a problem; thus a minimum three visits at monthly intervals.
  • Gulls’ nests are scrappy affairs and not well built. Favourite positions are in the lee of a parapet or chimney where there is a degree of protection from the wind, preferably with a high point nearby like a chimney, where one of the pair can keep lookout. Often a gull observed frequently on a high point like a chimney as a lookout is a clear sign that there is a nest nearby.
  • Gulls are not particularly aggressive early on in the nesting season so it is safe to do so. This is why it would be good to make frequent early season visits if you can as they are less embedded therefore less aggressive. If you can dislodge them early, so much the better. Wear a cycle helmet though, and carry a broom or golf brolly. Have your mobile handy. Don’t go alone. If you place the broom handle at your back with it strapped around your waist, then if they try to dive you, they will have to swerve to avoid the handle. Even when eggs appear, and there is usually one parent permanently on guard, they are half-hearted in their defence of the eggs, especially early on in the season.
  • It is no problem for a gull to re-lay a new egg. They are like hens in that respect, and if they lose an egg they can re-lay up to 17 times before egg quality degrades. (Gulls eggs were traditionally used as a wild food source by coastal communities around the Forth. Boats would row out to the low lying holms and islands which were their natural habitats and collect them during April and May. A gull’s egg tastes much the same as a hen’s egg, but has a tougher texture. It is OK scrambled or in an omelette but not fried). As stated above, under the terms of the Wildlife Protection Act it would be illegal nowadays to collect gulls’ eggs from wild areas. But not in urban areas. Removing and destroying eggs in an urban context is not illegal provided the property owner has given permission. Note too that the Lesser Black Backed gulls’ numbers are NOT declining, in fact they are over-breeding.

Villa Areas

Tenement roofs are designed with a flat roof section running along the middle for ease of access for chimney sweeping. They are comparatively easy to access, and once you have reached one roof you can move along the street from tenement to tenement. Thus it is very easy to remove nests from streets of tenements as one access point will usually suffice for that entire side of the street.

  • Villas are often more difficult for roof access, though on the plus side, the concentrations of gulls are also lesser. It would be difficult to find space for 19 nests on an average villa roof.
  • On the type of roof it might be worthwhile to spike or net sections of individual properties. But again, pointless unless your neighbours agree to do the same. So it is important to have a community response to tackle a wider area, sufficient to give you all peace. Especially effective is if you can spike the lookout point, typically this is a chimney. A chimney is a small area, so less expensive. Without a convenient lookout point gulls are likely to choose another site.
  • In East Lothian (where the Council actually does try to tackle gulls) a cherry-picker is hired for the day by the pest control officer in late May/early June and nests are removed from streets where neighbours are reporting gull nuisance.
  • It’s important not to leave it until August when the problem is acute. Whilst it would not be illegal to destroy live chicks there are few people who would find that a palatable choice. Therefore, start early, in the spring, by removing nesting material. If this is done frequently enough the gulls won’t even have the chance to lay an egg, never mind hatch a chick. This is why the nest removal strategy works so well. Not only is it highly effective, it is harmless to gulls.
  • Identify where nests may be present by noticing if any gulls are ‘staking out’ any particular roofs, as if staking a claim. (This is exactly what they are doing; letting other gulls know, ‘this is my patch’). Especially if they are seen on any high points, as they may be protecting nests.
  • Gulls may breed for 17 years and their instinct will be to return to any sites where they bred successfully the previous year, so you can be sure that if you had one last year, they will likely be back. This will give you some indication of where they are likely to be nesting this year.
  • It might be preferable to hire a roofer or pest control officer if your roof is difficult to access or you are nervous. As long as a wider area is tackled.


From 2001-2006 I undertook a de-nesting scheme with a few neighbours in tenement areas of Merchiston and Bruntsfield, at first hiring a falconer to deter gulls. It was very effective, even after Year One. Years Two and onwards were essentially mopping up and monitoring exercises. Much of what I have learned about gull biology and behaviour was from Dr John Coulson, of Durham University, the UK’s leading expert on gulls who for a time was advising Dumfries and Galloway Council. The rest I have learned from simple experience and observation of gull behaviour.

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