You may know your city. But can you sense it? That’s the question I was pondering the other morning, when the shrill, guttural caw of gulls – that sardonic laugh thing they do at five in the morning – spiked its way into my dreams like a rogue agent from Inception.
The seagulls of Liverpool aren’t blow-ins, nor are they fair weather migrants, they’re part of who we are. They cruise above the sandstone and skyscrapers of downtown like shards flaked off from the city’s skin, or the constant flurry of some giant, restless snow globe. Not falling, but floating.
As the city’s fortunes have shifted from industry to poverty, commerce to culture, so its soundtrack has scored out the changes. The gossiping of merchants, the hustle of stevedores and the wail of the air-raid siren. Throughout it all, the bark of the herring gull has been, arguably, our only constant.
We’ve pushed out the tides, in-filled the docks, and paved our beachfront paradise with parking lots, and still the seagulls stick around. Don’t they know Rick Stein’s Padstow chippy’s only a day away, as the crow flies? Haven’t they given up hope that our fishing fleet will ever return? That the last ‘catch of the day’ landed in a scampi basket in the Lord Street Berni Inn, sometime in the late 70s?
They may splatter our windscreens, and scavenge through our sick, but our seagulls stick around. And that’s more than can be said for Ringo and Cilla (and everyone else we’ve clumsily moulded a statue in honour of).
We lionise the cormorant mutants atop the Liver Buildings. We anxiously fret that ‘when the Liver Birds fly away, Liverpool will cease to exist’. But I’ve got news for you – they’re 18 foot tall, weigh four tonnes, and if they ever did flee their perch they’d hit the ground like an incendiary bomb in the Blitz.
In short, Liverpool would probably survive. But with a fair wind, and a bit of luck, they might take out the new Mersey Ferries terminal.
If the gulls flew away? We’d lose the one living link to our past, and Liverpool – at least the one SevenStreets knows – would be silenced forever.
Part of us, yet elevated out of sight of our daily business, it’s really only the gull’s cry that interrupts our daily business.
And here’s where that ‘sense’ thing comes in.
Because, it seems, it’s not just us who speak in an accent exceedingly rare. Our seagulls do, too.
Even if your only Cornwall adventure is a guilty hour in the company of Doc Martin, you’ll know the cry of a Cornish gull – they sing in perfect pitch, they round their A’s and turn tricks for tourists, like doing passable versions of your favourite Mumford and Sons shanties.
Ours? They’re all consonants and catarrh, yocking out phlegmy coughs like a chain-smoking grandad, shrieking their arrival like adenoidal Norse invaders.
Yes, Liverpool seagulls sound different to the rest. Harder. Cooler. Tougher. Stronger.
Well, don’t they?
Kirsty Penk is a Wildlife Education Officer for the RSPB. She’s almost on our side.
“The localisation of birdsong is well known,” she tells SevenStreets. “A Scottish Blue Tit will sound different to a Kent Blue Tit, for example.”
“We’re not sure, but birds are known for their mimicry,” Penk says. “Continental starlings are migratory, and by listening to them in summer, it’s possible to tell where they’ve been over the winter. They start to pick up the sounds of the birds they’ve over-wintered with.”
It’s thought songbirds do this to show off. The wider their repertoire, the more attractive they are to their mates. So far, so Rose and Crown karaoke night. But sometimes, starlings just do it for cheap thrills.
“There was a starling who learned the whistle a cat’s owner used to call his cat home, Penk says, “and the bird started copying the whistle just to torment the poor cat at all hours of the night.”
Our theory hits the ground, though, when Penk reminds us that herring gulls aren’t songbirds.
“They have a range of contact calls, and alarm calls,” she says, “but they don’t use these in the same way songbirds do, so I’m not sure they’d fit the theory.”
Begging to disagree, Stephen I. Rothstein of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Robert C. Fleischer of the University of Hawaii. In their recent ‘Condor’ study, they advance the idea that the dialect of birds is a constant across all species.
The evolutionary reason?
“We noticed that female birds responded more frequently to males using a local dialect than to those with a ‘foreign’ accent,” they say.
“It appears to be a very difficult and lengthy procedure for birds to convincingly learn a new dialect,” Rothstein adds. “And if this is the case, the female is assured by the local accent that the male is mature and has been around long enough to demonstrate an ability to defend its local territory. In other words, he’s a biologically fit male.”
Still, it doesn’t account for why the Scouse seagull sounds, well, sounds so Scouse. Who’s mimicking who here?
Everything in our city has helped to shape who we are. Is it possible a flock of seagulls have given us our song?