Usually, when a flock of seagulls is surrounded by a horde of excited admirers, the seagulls in question are an 80’s hairband. Not so in Kunming, China. For the city of 6 million in the South Western province of Yunnan, it was love at first sight when a flock of black-headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) descended on the city in the winter of 1985.
The 30,000-odd gulls had migrated over 2,000 miles from Baikal Lake, Siberia, and since discovering Kunming, they’ve been back every year since.
The gulls – whose black heads turn white in the winter - usually arrive in November, and stay until February or March. They could not have asked for a better habitat, or a warmer welcome, than they found in Kunming - the city sits at the edge of Dian Lake, one of the largest fresh water lakes in China. The birds spend their nights on the lake, and during the day, many venture into the city in search of food.
A popular lunch spot is Green Lake, a small body of water in the center of the city. The lake is already the city’s answer to Central Park, but during the winter, many visitors come just to see the birds.
Vendors sell bread and bird seed around the lake, and eager tourists happily spend their time and money feeding the birds, and having their photo taken in front of their feathered friends. There are not many place in China where it is possible to see real, un-caged wildlife, and the black-headed gulls have been met with fascination and delight.
Instead of the quiet distance we expect to give wildlife in the US, the Chinese approach is literally more hands on.
Still, the birds seem willing to trade the invasion of personal space for free food, and there is no doubt the city treasures their presence.
In 1995, a monument to the gulls was erected in Green Lake Park, and the gull has joined the giant panda and golden monkey in the highest social honor a species can receive: Wildlife Deserving of Its Own Plush Toy.