New Yahoos of the Chimney-pots

John Wilson Foster


In the very near future the lesser black-backed gulls will depart our shores for wherever they spend their presumably quieter winter. Not a moment too soon. I am counting the days. For the first time in my life, I have become infuriated with a bird and cold happily throttle it.

Before too long I will be able to leave a bedroom window open on a warm night without being awakened before dawn by the high-pitched cacophony of what can only be called gangs of Larus fuscus announcing this, alleging that, disputing the other.

In August the gulls drown out the wrens and robins who compose the muted post-nesting dawn chorus.  But actually, some gulls bedded down only in the small hours of the morning, late-night noisy revellers on the wing, contemptuous equally of the darkness, the city council’s noise control regulations, and the human inhabitants abed.

I say they will depart our shores, but I do believe most of these winged smartly-dressed riff-raff never even paddle let alone swim, or even set their by now needlessly webbed foot on the seashore. I remember the lesser black-backed gull of my boyhood in Belfast as an elegant, uncommon, rather shy summer visitant (as they used to call it in the bird-books) to river and sea, a welcome alternative to the bolder herring gull. How and why they transformed Dr Jeykll-like into Mr Hydes of the city rooftops is a mystery to me.

It is true that they are not alone in their conversion to the city. When I was a boy, I had to leave Belfast for the country to see magpies and hooded crows. Now both are urban dwellers, having lost their wariness and become emboldened around habitation and humans.  They too are noisy as if you have to kick up a racket to assert yourself in the asphalt jungle.

For a few decades these scavenging crows have ruled the rooftops and bullied birds smaller or more pacific than themselves. But this new set of local migrants has moved in and taken over - bigger, handsomer and rougher. They give the crows short but noisy shift; the gulls have become the new yahoos of the chimney pots on which they perch deep into twilight, challenging all and sundry.

And what an exaggerated arsenal of aggressive vocalisations they have at their disposal. There is a threatening wail as they glide, a variety of cat-callings, and then the self-satisfied nickerings when they land. But worst of all – though fine and dandy at the breezy seashore when you need to make yourself heard against the wind and the breakers – is the elaborate throwing up of the head and the series of ear-splitting jeers directed no doubt at neighbouring fellows but as if at the world in general.

Larus fuscus has taken especially to the Victorian rooftops of south Belfast with its intricate and rather ornate and unsuspected chimneyscape with which I have become familiar for the first time because I am at chimney-pot level in my new apartment four storeys up.

But what were once elegant single-family dwellings built and inhabited by Belfast’s industrial middle-management have decayed into offices, student flats or, even worse, dereliction (though there is now some post-recession attempts at renovation and gentrification).  

I cannot help but see the intrusion of the lesser black-backed and herring gulls as part of the suburban decline. Scavenging is a form of self-help begging and this is what the gulls do now on the streets and in the skips instead of at the seashore where it seemed less like scavenging than feeding naturally.

With fascination I have watched them for the first time this spring absurdly nesting (if that could be the word) among the ceramic crenellations. It is as if the roofs and chimney pots have become the new forest canopy. The improbably huge nestlings spend weeks in their precarious abode and I have yet to spot them reaching the ground as fledglings before being able to take wing. But since I see no corpses I assume they make it safely – next season’s disturbers of the dawn.

The lessers are of course part of a larger picture. Just as peregrine falcons saw high-rise buildings as faux cliffs, and nested and roosted there, so too have the gulls, and I have seen glaucous-winged gulls (the herring gulls of the North American west coast) raise young on the generous ledges of older multi-storey buildings in downtown Vancouver.  

The chimneyscape of south Belfast is an interesting variation on an international gull phenomenon. And of course, herring gulls have become aggressive nuisances in English seaside resorts, scavenging become begging and then chugging with threats.

The lessers too have become bolder. I recently watched one determined specimen try to catch a swift. Admittedly the quest was a hopeless one and perhaps the swift was smirking in flight, but I was impressed at the fist the lesser made of the chase and how long he maintained the pursuit, sometimes coming within a few feet of the forked tail. Perhaps the lessers are exhibiting a new intolerance in their new habitat.

An acquaintance was dive-bombed in another part of south Belfast by the gulls presumably nesting on the neighbouring housetops. The rooftop zone is increasingly being divided in breeding season into small urban patches to be stoutly defended.

I will watch this winter to see if the herring gulls, less common as denizens of the chimneyscape, desert the rooftops for other parts. But where in September the lessers go abroad and what they do there I have no idea. I must make it my business to find out. They are seasonal migrants and I want to discover if in fact they spend a noisy winter of discontent elsewhere and bring their problems here come springtime.  

Adult lesser with fledglings above

Adult lesser with fledglings above

This piece appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on September 13, 2016