The old fisherman is hunched over his sandwich, and despite the late summer heat pulls his coat about himself like a little tent.
“You afraid someone’s gonna nick yer bait, mister?!” someone calls out to him, to some good natured laughs from those assembled round the old band stand on Whitby harbour. I sat with a tray of chips, hot and golden in the sun, wafting delicious vinegar-laced steam. I’ve been here many times and know what the old fisherman is worried about.
“Them bloody gulls!” he says to more laughter from the others.
Seagulls are ubiquitous on the British coast, and in many places they have learned new ways to exploit human activity. The ‘bandstand bandits’ are a prime example. When you look them in the eye, something looks back. Something that remembers a time when their ancestors hunted ours through the forests of long lost continents. Birds survived the Cretaceous/Paleogene extinction event because they were adaptable. Now, 65 million years later, they have adapted just as effortlessly to the new opportunities of the Anthropocene world.
People sit at the bandstand to eat and enjoy the view of the beautiful old town and abbey draped across the cliffs opposite. Imposing walls of Jurassic sediments frame the harbour in the mouth of the River Esk. So do the gulls, watching, waiting, and planning. Most people don’t notice the gulls, or the dozens of signs left by the council imploring visitors not to feed them.
There is one particular gull causing a stir by dancing in front of a toddler, much to the amusement of the child and its parents. No one pays attention to the gull that walks casually behind the little boy and sits down. Suddenly the dancing gull lunges at the child, wings spread wide, the boy trips and falls on the sitting gull – dropping his ice cream. The two birds lunge, the dairy treat is devoured and they leap skyward before the startled parents can react. As the little boy’s wailing fills the air the real heist unfolds around the bandstand. Chips, waffles, hotdogs and a whole cloud of candy floss are liberated from distracted humans by previously nonchalant and unnoticed gulls.
As humans urbanise more of the world and climate change alters habitats, I think about what other surprising ways animals will find to exploit human environments. The birds were here long before us, so I’m in no doubt they will be here long after we have gone.
My chips remain firmly in my hands,though one insistent young gull taps my boot with his beak and dances a little jig for me. I’m not fooled and move my chips away from his friend sneaking up beside me. They leave, squawking – chipless and indignant. The old fisherman has since finished his own food, “it’s the females that are the worst, they’re more ruthless, got chicks to feed” he says and ambles back about his business.