Righting the Record for the World’s Premier Trash Birds

Birder Tim Dee paints an enlightening portrait of the urban gull and its ingenuity in his book ‘Landfill.’

Tim Dee would go to the ends of the Earth for a good gull. The former BBC producer’s pursuits have taken him to a beached whale carcass in South Africa, Chekhov’s cottage in Crimea, and countless dumps across England.

That says a lot about his quarry, of course. Known as the trash birds of the world, gulls are often disparaged for their attraction to cities and refuse. But as a naturalist and dedicated gull admirer, Dee knows that by vilifying the enterprising and cunning birds, we only vilify ourselves. “They’ve become in-between birds in an in-between world. By moving toward us, they’re becoming like us,” he says.

This is the main thrust of Dee’s latest book, Landfill, which just hit North American shelves this month. Through treks with scientists who study urban nesting colonies, snapshots from ornithological archives, and personal encounters, Dee traces the struggles and continuous evolution in the relationship between gulls and people. Most vignettes take place in the United Kingdom, where the politics around pest management have crescendoed in the past few years—but the theme of misunderstanding is more universal, he says. Society values adaptation and survival, unless those powers present in an untamed creature like the gull.

Audubon chatted with Dee about insights he picked up while researching and writing Landfill. (And for those wondering, his grail species is the humble North American Herring Gull.)

Audubon: How did you land on gulls for your fourth book?

Dee: I've always wanted to study gulls and understand them, but I didn't pay that much attention to them as a young birdwatcher. There just weren't that many species where I grew up in southern England. In the past 15 or 20 years, however, my birdwatcher friends and I started spending time in nasty places like landfills, wastewater treatment sites, and brownfields. Gulls were common in all these places, and I wanted to know why. It said something about them, but also about how we human beings were living. So, it was a double interest to me.

A: These birds are portrayed as resourceful, adaptive creatures through all the studies and anecdotes you share. Is there a lesson in that?

D: We’re living in the Anthropocene, an era where civilization calls the shots and shapes the world. But we still have mixed feelings about urban wildlife like sparrows, pigeons, starlings, and foxes. There's something provocative about living alongside these animals—we find it challenging. All it really does is challenge our ideas of nature, though.

Gulls have found opportunities to survive in the Anthropocene, but they’ve also retained some of their wildness. In conservation terms, they show us that even the most ubiquitous animals absorb changes and suffer population declines. Understanding why and how can lead us to find ways of improving the world.

A: Gulls didn’t get much mention in Western literature and artwork until the past two or three centuries. Why?

D: Physically, gulls were scarce: There were very few records of them on the Thames or in other parts of the United Kingdom until the late 1890s and 1900s. Culturally, they were considered birds of the sea, so they were invisible.

The trend of the urban gull is new, as is the shift in understanding and knowing the birds. When Black-headed Gulls moved into London in the 1900s—drawn by industry—half of the people thought of them as maligned scroungers. The other half thought them as elegant enough to turn into fashion. The same can be said in New York City, where Laughing Gulls were preyed on for eggs and feathers. That, in turn, helped launch the National Audubon Society and the larger bird-conservation movement, which brought us a greater degree of awareness.

A: The relationship between gulls and people seems to be particularly volatile in England.

D: Yes, the development of the urban gull population is about 15 to 20 years ahead in Western Europe because we’ve industrialized so quickly. Residents in the United Kingdom, Norway, and Portugal are uncomfortable with number of birds and their nesting behaviors, and more politicians are mobilizing in response. For example, in England we now have legislation to give gulls less chance to pilfer and thrive.

As pressures mount and populations drop, gulls are engaging with humans in more hostile ways. I hear they’re also depressed about Brexit—the food is much better in France.

A: You interviewed, shadowed, and befriended dozens of people who’ve dedicated their lives to learning these birds. Did you notice a common denominator between them?

D: Whether people are obsessed with gulls as professionals or amateurs, they're all slightly marginalized in society. But what’s interesting to me is that they get into the niche after they observe it in places where there weren't many other birds. A lot of gull species go unnoticed because they’re hard to tell apart. Once they gain recognition, however, they're very beautiful to watch.

I found it very moving to be with these scientists and volunteers at rubbish dumps as they study how gulls are moving through Europe. They're bringing new ideas into the world and making it more interesting in that way.

A: I have to admit, I’ve underappreciated gulls in my brief birding career. Got any advice for people like me?

D: If you pay attention to gulls, get close to them, spend time with them, you’ll recognize how smart they are. They're highly adaptable in feeding and breeding and only need a few years to learn to live in new environments.

Conservation organizations can do a better service to these birds, too, by noticing the big-picture changes that gull activities reflect. Right now the species that breed on the U.K. coast aren't doing very well. They fish in the sea and so do we, so we're connected in this fate. They're indicators of the general health of the planet.

We ought to be impressed by gulls. They're not losers—they're winners. And in that way they're quite like us. Maybe that’s also why we don’t like them enough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Landfill: Notes on Gull Watching and Trash Picking in the Anthropocene, by Tim Dee, Chelsea Green Publishing, 240 pages, $25. Buy it at Chelsea Green.