Our prime minister has called for a ‘big conversation’ about herring gulls, which in the space of a tabloid week have become the teenage hoodies of the bird world. Live and let live, I say, but it certainly seems that they are becoming noisier and more numerous in the centre of Liverpool, where I work. Last week I even found a baby gull sheltering by the staff entrance to our building. The word ‘seagull’ to describe the herring gull is increasingly inaccurate. You will even see gulls in landlocked Birmingham because they have flown up the Bristol Channel and followed the M5, mistaking it for a river. But then I suppose seagull is no more of a misnomer than ‘herring gull’ – it does eat herrings, but will eat pretty much anything else as well, including chips it hasn’t paid for.
The cry of the herring gull at the start of Desert Island Discs has never made much sense. You are far more likely to hear gulls screeching around inland landfill sites than around Pacific islands. The herring gull’s cry, somewhere between a mournful lament and a manic laugh, has long invited anthropocentric projections. According to Stefan Buczacki’s Fauna Britannica, gulls were believed to house the souls of the dead, especially sailors drowned at sea – which is why, as with the albatross, it was bad luck to kill one. In British coastal villages, fishermen were supposed to turn into gulls when they died, and a gull flying against the window of a house was a warning that any family member at sea was in mortal danger.
In 1953, the great animal behaviourist Niko Tinbergen published a classic study of Larus argentatus, The Herring Gull’s World. ‘The voice of the herring gull is wonderfully melodious,’ he wrote. ‘There are few sounds as evocative, as stirring as the profound, plaintive beauty of their calls.’ Tinbergen identified the many different types of herring gull call: call note, mew call, alarm call, courtship call, mating call, trumpeting call, and so on. The trumpeting call is the one you hear on Desert Island Discs – indeed this call used to be so often used for atmospheric effect on radio and TV programmes that sound recordists began to refer to the herring gull as the ‘BBC gull’.
I wonder if the herring gulls themselves are to be included in the planned ‘big conversation’? I would love to know what they are saying, but in years of listening to them every working day, I have never been able to differentiate their calls. But Tinbergen showed that anything becomes interesting, and nuanced, if you listen long and hard enough.