Well-known as the ‘seagull’, the herring gull is one of the most familiar of the larger gulls. It has a length of 56-66cm, wing length of 41-47cm and a weight of 1100g. Adults are white, with grey backs and black wing-tips. The yellow bill has a red spot on the lower mandible which is very bright during the breeding season. Legs and feet are flesh-pink. Young birds have a mottled grey and brown plumage and are hard to distinguish from the young of other large gulls. The grey back becomes apparent after the first year, but full mature plumage is not achieved until after four years. Herring gulls have a good lifespan – they start breeding at 3 to 7 years and can live to 20 years.
Herring gulls are found mainly on the coast, but large numbers move inland during winter, roosting on reservoirs and feeding on refuse tips. Since the 1970s such inland nesting has increased. They are ground nesters, so the absence of ground predators is critical to their choice of nesting site. Traditional sites are inaccessible locations such as sea-cliffs and islands – this may explain why roof-top nesting is popular in seaside towns. They feed on almost anything available of a suitable texture and size – fish and other sea creatures, dead meat, rubbish and waste food, as well as the chicks and eggs of other seabirds. They are very much scavengers in towns and on rubbish dumps, and in places over half of their food can come from this source.
The population of the herring gull increased in the UK during the post-war period, but is now notably declining – a decrease of 40% in the 25 years since 1969, with the largest declines in NW Scotland and SW England. They are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However, general licences are issued for their control by an authorised person in three circumstances – to prevent serious agricultural damage, to preserve public health/air safety, and for the conservation of wild birds. Another separate licence permits the sale of their eggs for human consumption.
As gull chicks leave their nests at an early age (2 to 3 days), it is common to find chicks on the ground. If an uninjured bird is found, it should be left undisturbed. If it is in a dangerous place, then it should be moved to the closest place of safety, as the parents are probably nearby. Injured birds should be placed gently in a cardboard box and the local RSPCAshould then be contacted. Adult gulls are also often found sick or injured on the coast, with leg and wing injuries being common. Botulism is also common in the summer. This is a form of poisoning caused by bacteria. Approach any sick gull slowly and place a large cloth over it, ensuring the head is covered. This should calm it enough to allow it to be picked up without further injury to either the bird or yourself. Contact the local RSPCA, or a vet for further help/advice.