GLOUCESTER — The following statement is not news: There are lots of seagulls in Gloucester.
No, that's a story as old as the city's fabled fishing fleet.
What is news is that the city is now under siege, or at least it feels that way to some downtown residents, who say gulls have invaded in a whole new way, nesting on roofs, tearing into trashbags like they're tortillas, and creating an incessant racket that destroys sanity and a good night's sleep. And don't get them started about droppings, which leave rooftops and cars looking like they were shot-up by a paintball gun filled with Wite-Out.
"It has never been a bad investment to own a car wash in Gloucester," said Ken Hecht, a city councilor whose district includes downtown — and whose office has become something of a clearinghouse for bird complaints. They have been increasing, he reports, along with demands that the city do something to fight back.
"I live on the top floor of a building downtown, and we've got seagulls screaming in our ear at 5:30 in the morning," Hecht said. "I just thought that was what you signed up for when you live downtown."
Those making the complaints say that is not what they signed up for, arguing that downtown living is for humans, not gulls, who have traditionally lived on islands off the coast.
Gulls — there is no single bird called a seagull, which is a colloquial term applied to several types of coastal gulls — were once primarily migratory winter visitors to the state. A century ago, the first nesting pairs were discovered off Martha's Vineyard, and the local population exploded as they settled in year-round, aided by a ban on hunting and plentiful food discarded by humans. But since the 1990s, their numbers have been in precipitous decline, according to Kathy Parsons, the director of Mass Audubon's Coastal Water Bird program. The number of nesting pairs for great black-backed gulls dropped from 15,000 to 4,600 statewide, while herring gulls have also lost 10,000 mating pairs, leaving them at 7,800.
Parsons said this can be attributed to thriving predator populations — crows, owls, coyotes, skunks — as well as disruptions to their food scavenging supply caused by the capping of landfills and, most pertinent to Gloucester, the decline in offshore fishing that provided a thriving population with a seemingly endless supply of fish scraps. The shift to rooftop habitats, she said, can be attributed to the protection they offer from many predators, as well as easy access to trash.
For those seeking action, the argument is simply that an urban rooftop is no place for a coastal bird.
"We are not anti-seagull," said Bradley Royds, who runs a recording studio downtown. "I despise the creatures, but I'm not against the birds. I'm pro-seagull. Which is why we're saying that downtown is a horrible place for them to live and raise babies. They don't have a proper food source, so they end up eating trash, shingles, insulation — you wouldn't believe what I've seen — then feeding it to their babies, and the babies die."
Royds, as well as a handful of his neighbors, have launched a concerted effort to disrupt the birds from nesting in their neighborhood. They have received federal permits that allow them to remove nests before the birds can lay eggs, a task that requires daily diligence because the birds can build quickly.
Right now is nesting season, and there is nary a rooftop downtown that doesn't seem to have nesting gulls, despite attempts to discourage them.
Many property owners have crisscrossed filament over their roofs, for example, or owl statues meant to scare the birds off. The federal building uses kites meant to look like hawks. The birds pay them no bother; they are nesting all over the roof.
At the Pike-Newhall Funeral Home, Robin Newhall has installed several shiny trinkets on her roof — "like little disco balls" — that are supposed to make it look, at least to gulls, like the roof is on fire. She also has a permit to remove nests, and has been one of the most vocal residents demanding action from the city.
"This is the quietest it's been in years," Newhall said this week as she stood on a deck just behind the funeral home, which is supposed to be a place for people to get some air and quiet during a wake. But before she took action and started removing nests and working with her neighbors, she said the deck was unusable and she spent 90 minutes each morning just cleaning up after the seagulls and hosing things off.
"We'd be trying to have a service inside and you couldn't hear the priest through all the noise," she said.
Newhall, Royds and a few other residents formally approached the city's Animal Advisory Council during the winter, attempting to paint the seagull issue as a trash issue.
"It's a complicated problem, because gulls are predators, but downtown they become scavengers because of the trash," said Jen Holmgren, a city councilor who serves as liaison to the Animal Advisory Council. "The city does as good of a job as it can to pick up the trash, but the gulls are incredibly fast and smart and aggressive and the bags get completely torn apart."
Holmgren said there is little the city can do about the birds themsevles because they are protected by federal migratory bird laws, so the city is focusing on education, encouraging residents to put their trash out in the morning instead of the night before, and reminding people that it is illegal to feed the birds.
The rise of the urban gull is a growing issue with no clear solution, but there is one oft-pointed-to city that has successfuly discouraged rooftop nesting. In three years, their prorgam has seen nests drop by a third and eggs by half.
It is the city of Gloucester. In England.