Dinged cars and damaged roofs: The high cost of a gull’s meal

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes curious things arise in our midst. Like mysterious damage to property. But there’s usually an explanation (in this case, hungry gulls) – as well as potential solutions.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Sea gulls stand on a car roof in Tasmania, Australia. Renowned for their aerial acrobatics, gulls are also known for leaving their mark on car roofs and hoods.

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Barry Fast runs Seagull Control Systems from City Island in the Bronx. He got into the business 12 years ago because he was trying to figure out how to protect his own boating dock from pesky gulls.

“We do a lot of work in the Hamptons,” he says. He also says he’s successfully banished gulls from whole lakes, shopping malls, and a nuclear power plant, among other places.

Gulls are renowned for their aerial acrobatics, brazen beach food heists, and shrill squawks. They also have a knack for causing collateral damage when they’re hungry.

Some of the birds peck through the shells of clams, oysters, or mussels, but that’s hard work. So instead, they hoist their prey aloft. And let go.

“Gulls are very creative and they have, over time, learned to drop mollusks on hard surfaces,” says Wayne Petersen, a director at Mass Audubon. “Young gulls see other gulls doing this, and they try it and say, ‘This works.’”

Tracie Cote, principal of the middle school in Wareham, Massachusetts, is all too familiar with this behavior. “They love to drop the shells on our roof,” she says. “We get holes.”

Francis Choi blamed the kids. Four months after he got a new car, he found a deep dent in the hood: an obvious sign of a playground ball gone awry.

His mechanic had a different theory: “Do you live near the ocean?” the man asked Mr. Choi. “This looks like a clam dent.”

It was the gulls.

“Now whenever I cross the causeway, I’m looking out for the sea gulls,” says Mr. Choi, a researcher at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center, who commutes across a thin spit every day to his lab in Nahant, northeast of Boston. “I feel terrible that I thought it was kids.”

Gulls are renowned for their aerial acrobatics, their brazen beach food heists, shrill squawks, and pervasive poop – “We call it the Gloucester paint job,” says Kenneth Hecht, a councilman in the old fishing port of Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The birds also are prolific bombers. First, they dig clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and other creatures from the sand, or scoop them from the surf. Some gulls will peck through the shell, but that’s hard work. So instead, they hoist their prey aloft. And let go.

“Gulls are very creative and they have, over time, learned to drop mollusks on hard surfaces,” says Wayne Petersen, a director at Mass Audubon. “It’s a learned behavior. Young gulls see other gulls doing this, and they try it and say, ‘This works.’”

Eliseo Fernandez/Reuters/File
A sea gull flies near cars arriving from China at the Port of Valparaiso northwest of Santiago, Chile, on Aug. 31, 2006. Sea gulls present an ever present danger to parked cars in coastal communities around the world.

The fall and impact break the shells or stun the inner creature to loosen its clamped armor. The scheme also creates collateral damage. Tracie Cote, principal of the middle school in Wareham, Massachusetts, found that out last winter when water started pouring into several classrooms.

“We are right by the wetlands, and when the sea gulls get their shells, our roof must be convenient for them,” Ms. Cote says. “They love to drop the shells on our roof, which is an older roof with a membrane that punctures. We get holes.”

Roofers patched the holes regularly and swept the accumulated shells off the roof, but one day last February, she arrived at 6 a.m. to find a flood. “We were wading through water – past my ankles,” she says. Roofers found the gulls’ bombs had put a hole in the roof surface where snow and water had accumulated. School was canceled for three days.

“I never knew this was part of the job,” says Ms. Cote. “I love sea gulls, but I just wish they would stay away from our middle school.”

Obstacle course

The shell rubble can be enough to create obstacles. On the wide sidewalk at Massachusetts’ Revere Beach, America’s oldest public beach, sharp shell shards litter the pavement between sweepings, a hazard for bike tires, barefoot humans, and dogs. 

It’s not exactly a new problem, and one that courts creative embellishment. A 1932 item in the Vineyard Gazette on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts said that gulls were dropping shells on rats “with a precision that almost never fails to connect with the rodent below, knocking it unconscious or killing it outright on the spot, whereupon the gulls descend and feast on fresh meat.”

These days, airports near water try to discourage gulls and other birds with a variety of tools – shotguns, cannon blasts, even falcons.

Over the years seemingly sober studies have been done, but with hardly sensational results. A 1981 study in Bodega Bay, California, produced an elaborate graph showing the heavier the shell, the less high the gulls took it. Another study, in 1978, plotted 525 shell bombings and concluded that young gulls were significantly less accurate in hitting pavement. Science at work.

Mass Audubon's Mr. Petersen, who has been a tour guide and bird lecturer for more than 35 years, does note gently that – Jonathan Livingston Seagull aside – there is no such species as sea gull. They are all just gulls, and many of them happen to live near the sea.

But woe to an unsuspecting homebuyer looking at a seaside property with a flat, metal roof. Barry Fast, who runs a business called Seagull Control Systems from City Island in the Bronx, says recent clients had bought a family compound of houses in Avalon, New Jersey, with a metal roof over a master bedroom.

“Every day at dawn, the gulls would collect mussels or clams at low tide, and from 30 to 40 feet, would drop them on the metal roof,” Mr. Fast reports. “It was cacophony.”

His company’s chief strategy is to string very thin wires in wide spacing over flat surfaces. Sharp-eyed gulls can see the wire, and don’t land where their lengthy takeoff pattern could hit interference.

Mr. Fast got into the business 12 years ago to try to figure out how to protect his own boating dock. He says he has successfully banished gulls from whole lakes, shopping malls, roofs of major industries, a nuclear power plant, cruise ships, landfills, solar panels, food processing plants, and lots of private homes.

“We do a lot of work in the Hamptons,” he says. “Really beautiful homes, but they all inevitably have big white stone decks and swimming pools. Sea gulls love to break their clams and then take a dip in the pool.”

A rubberized solution

One solution for the shell bombs is a bouncier roof. Rick Starbard, owner of Rick’s Auto Collision, near the gull-thick Revere Beach, says he used to hear the thump of shells on his roof regularly. But then he replaced the roof with an insulated and rubberized surface. The shells apparently rebound instead of crack. Problem solved.

In Gloucester, “it’s not just shells,” says Bradley Royds, a musician and music producer. “It’s bones and sticks and cigarette butts.” Much of the debris dropped on top of his studio was used to build rooftop nests. He says he often had to stop recording in the studio because of the raucous gulls.

Mr. Royds, who insists “I’m for gulls, but they shouldn’t be living in an unnatural, unhealthy urban environment eating garbage,” has led a movement of businesspeople who got permits to dismantle the nests. (Gull nests and the birds are federally protected.) He’s also deployed an armory of nonlethal methods: spikes, wires, laser lights, motion detectors, and even a drone. 

“It’s a lot better now,” Mr. Royds observed on a recent summer day. “In fact, it’s dead quiet right now. Maybe they are out chasing a fishing boat.”

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