Gulls behaving badly

With their ear splitting calls, quarrelsome nature and less than savoury table manors it’s easy to see why the Herring Gull has earned a bad reputation as an urban menace, somewhat unfairly in my opinion. Gull are in fact highly opportunistic, adaptable and very intelligent birds , with complex social lives.

Now that the nesting season has begun the harbour gulls are providing a great opportunity to observe some aspects of their lesser known behaviour close up.

Like a number of seabirds, The Herring Gull is generally monogamous, with birds staying together for life, except in very rare circumstances. They have several unique behaviours used to reaffirm this bond.

One of these behaviours is known as ‘Choking’. The birds utter a low chattering call whilst bobbing their heads in an apparent choking motion, usually whilst crouching with the tail raised.


Gull ‘choking’ displays



Here is a very brief video clip which demonstrates the behaviour rather better than photographs.

Another commonly observed behaviour is ‘begging’. Here the female is snapping at his beak of her mate to encourage him to regurgitate food for her. This is often proceeding by mating, but not on this particular occasion.

Regurgitating food for it’s mate

The pairs bonding session was soon interrupted by the arrival of another bird, a rival in the territory who needed seeing off promptly.

The majority of the time gulls will use displays, calls and gestures to settle their boundary disputes, rather than resorting to contact which could end in injury for one or both birds.


Here the gull is charging with wings raised in an obvious threat.

A charging display


Charging with a rock held in its beak
Aggressive gull

Another common behaviour seen in these conflicts is bill jabbing. This is where an individual will repeatedly pecks at stones or objects, or at it’s opponents bill, but rarely do they actually make contact.

Bill jabbing


Rather than clash with each other Herring Gulls will often engage in bouts of ‘grass pulling’ where they seize vegetation and tug at it vigorously, perhaps as a show of their strength or as a displacement activity. They will also often pick up rocks and other objects.


If all of these behaviours and gestures fail to settle a dispute, occasionally fights can break out. This is known as bill tugging where the birds will grasp each together by the beak and attempt to drag the other bird backwards as though in a tug of war.


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Gull tug of war


*information source from Pierotti, R. and T. P. Good. 1994. Herring Gull (Lams argentatus). – The Birds of North America

All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography 2017 ©

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