A two-hour drive from the French coast, Paris installs an artificial shoreline on the banks of the Seine every summer and while the beach may be fake, the seagulls overhead turn out to be real.
And the birds don’t leave when the stretches of sand and deckchairs are removed before the autumn chill.
Hailing from the Atlantic coast, these herring gulls – with their white heads and bodies, gray wings, yellow beaks and piercing cries – have found a surprising new home in the City of Lights.
“We can’t really speak of a population explosion,” according to Frédéric Malher, deputy director of the city’s ornithological center, who said there were currently around 50 breeding pairs in central Paris.
But attracted by warmer temperatures and cooked meals, they offer an incongruous – and not always welcome – presence on the tall Haussmann buildings where their nests are perched and which, according to Malher, the gulls probably confuse with cliffs by the sea. .
For more than a century, Paris has been a part-time home of the much smaller black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus), a river bird that winters in city parks before returning home to Eastern Europe each March .
But the herring gull (Larus argentatus) is now a year-round resident and even nests here, Malher said.
Concentrations of birds are found today in the historic central district of the Marais, around the national archives and in a district close to the Montparnasse skyscraper that of the left bank.
In 1989, a captive female in the Jardin des Plantes and a wild male were one of the first pairs to hatch eggs in Paris.
Paris herring gulls now have between one and three young per pair per season, but a very high mortality rate means that the population is growing only slowly.
The herring gull is large – an adult has a wingspan of 1.5 meters (4.9 feet).
Its original diet included fish and shellfish, even small birds, but in town the gull eats “just about anything”, according to Malher.
Peter Rock, an ornithologist and urban gull expert in Bristol, England, said herring gulls move to cities attracted by the ease of foraging offered by landfills, the absence of predators and warmer temperatures.
“In town, the temperature is between four and six degrees Celsius (7.2 and 10.8 degrees F) warmer than the surrounding countryside. This makes things much easier for the breeding season,” he explained.
As in Great Britain, birds abound in French coastal towns like Dieppe, Lorient or Brest, where flocks of hungry gulls harass restaurant terraces.
Experts say herring gulls pose no real threat but cause a lot of annoyance with their screams and tearing up trash cans.
Gulls cause damage to buildings – when standing to avoid a fight they have a habit in the wild of tearing up large clumps of grass, but in the city they are roofing felt, insulation pipes and sealing materials that are affected.
Paris City Hall says it has received only a handful of complaints so far, mostly from residents annoyed by the noise.
Herring gulls have a high-decibel call, “Iyo iyo iyo GA-GA-GA-GA-GA”, which they tend to utter in groups, especially at sunrise, which is not popular in a city where calm and sleep are prized.
“When you hear it, you think the racket is made by three or four birds and it turns out only one bird is doing it,” Malher said.
Rock, whose town has a large population of herring gulls, agrees.
“The main complaint is noise. It continues all day and night with a particularly loud response at dawn,” he said.
“I guess the second most complained about thing is the white stuff coming out of their rear end.”
The herring gull is a protected species in France, as in Great Britain, and it is an offense to kill the bird.
But the authorities of some cities where they have become pests can obtain special permission to sterilize the eggs in the nest by covering them with varnish to smother the embryo.
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