Soaring gulls have a bad reputation

There are gulls galore on the Sussex shore. Yet these are the birds that people ignore. Many detest them, because they scream, and might snatch your chips.

Herring gulls are hated especially, because they no longer seem to respect the human race. Herring gulls clean up our garbage on the land-fill sites, and have baleful, yellow eyes, and they take gross liberties with our property, perching on the roofs of our town houses, and squabbling, just as we do. There they stand, on the super-market stores, and wail like drowning sailors.

Falconers with Harris hawks on their wrists fly these deterrents at the pirate birds and try to remove them but the gulls have dealt with peregrines and buzzards on a daily basis and know how to out-swoop. Here and there in the crowd of irritated shoppers putting up with the cacophony of seaside noises, off will be a weird bird-watcher like me, or perhaps a glider pilot like my brother who will see and hear nothing but joy at the perfection in the sky above.

We know that there are too many gulls in our towns because there is too much rubbish and they take advantage. They are not daft. They waste nothing; they leave that luxury to us. They scrape a living from our left-overs yet remain clean and tidy with perfect plumage as white as the driven snow.

My brother took advantage of them by watching where they were flying. They knew where the thermals were. In the Andes during the World Championships he followed gulls lower down, then vultures and condors into the high peaks. In Czechoslovakia, he followed the flight patterns of gulls, and again in Australia. The wings of gulls are built much better than the carbon fibre plastic wings on which we soar nowadays.

Gulls’ wings are renewed each year, and if you examine a flight feather discarded in summer as another grows in its place you will see how barbs at the tip have been frayed by a year of slicing through air. These are not so pronounced as in a peregrine’s flight feather which has had perhaps an inch torn off the end by repeated dives of 200 mph. You may also see stress lines across the shaft where a bird starved for a few days causing a halt in development. Da Vinci may have been the first person to describe in diagram the mechanics of flight performed by a gull. He admired them for their perfection as he did with human forms. Every gull is an athlete. Few of us can claim to be Olympiads.

If I go to Brighton, or Shoreham, or Chichester, the sight of gulls swooping over the streets and their wild cries take me to the cliffs of Devon, or the Gower peninsula, or Flamborough Head as they drown the sound of traffic. But most people would just see them as an annoyance. It is now an offence to feed gulls in cities with a fine for so doing.

Nine different species of gull are commonly found in Sussex, with another seven species recorded. Some of them take four years to develop full adult plumage so identifying one from another always keeps me busy on a walk along the shore. Do not ignore, I implore; just watch them soar and you won’t feel so sore.