The Eternal City has long been known for its pigeon population but now, seagulls are elbowing their way into the city's lore as well, The number of resident seagulls has grown into the tens of thousands, and the size of the birds has increased as they enjoy the urban buffet of garbage, unguarded food, and even other Roman birds.
Why do seagulls like Rome?
The now-giant sea birds first showed up in Rome in large numbers several decades ago. At first, their arrival was surprising because the sea is about 20 miles from the city. Initially they were attracted to suburban landfills, but they eventually turned their attention to garbage cans and food in the city itself. The population spiked when birds migrated into urban areas after the massive Malagrotta garbage dump closed in 2013.
The already-savvy scavengers from Malagrotta found a perfect habitat in Rome. Garbage collection services have long been sub-par in Italy's capital, so there are plenty of overflowing bins and dumpsters to pick through. Things have gotten even better since 2013 — at least from a gull's perspective. Earlier this year, garbage services were so bad that the European Union threatened sanctions if the city failed to improve the methods it uses to deal with waste.
For some locals, the seagulls are a symptom of an ineffective municipal government, whom they also blame for problems that range from potholes and broken buses to uncut grass in public parks. The garbage buildup is the most common complaint, however. Not only has it drawn gulls, but a recent report on NPR said wild pigs have also been spotted rooting through uncollected garbage.
Seagulls are predators
But the city’s attractiveness to gulls goes beyond its garbage heaps. The white-and-grey birds aren't picky about what they eat, and they'll even dine on other birds.
Back in 2014, then-newly appointed Pope Francis released two white doves from a balcony above Saint Peter’s Square as part of a prayer for the end of the conflict in Ukraine. One of the birds was immediately attacked by a seagull. The papal pigeon eventually escaped, minus a clump of tail feathers, but the moment was memorable.
It’s common to see the surprisingly predatory gulls feasting on pigeons or their preferred prey, starlings. Starlings, with flocks that number in the millions, have created their own issues in Rome. They have been responsible for birdstrikes at Rome's airport and for droppings that cover parts of the city's iconic squares (and hit anyone who happens to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time).
The way Rome has dealt with the small black birds has proven that bird-friendly control measures can be successful. For example, bird experts have occasionally used loudspeakers broadcasting starling distress calls to successfully scare the birds out of certain areas.
How to they act around humans?
The intra-avian violence is one thing. What really bothers Romans, visitors, and the city’s authorities is that the birds are becoming more and more aggressive. While the city hasn’t entered Alfred Hitchcock territory yet, gulls have broken into houses and made life miserable for one of Rome's most iconic institutions: outdoor dining.
Gulls are common sights at outdoor restaurants and rooftop bars, where they sit on the periphery and watch for someone to leave their table or toss them a scrap. Occasionally, an especially brash bird might jump the starting gun and snap up something from a table that's still occupied. Though stories of seagull attacks are often shared on social media, the birds are almost always more of an annoyance than an actual threat. In addition to food-pick-pocketing, the birds have left iconic Roman statues, fountains and piazzas marred by bird poop.
What's the seagull solution?
Some people have called for the birds to be culled, but the city has no plans to act on these demands yet. Francesca Manzia, the director of the Italian League for Bird Protection in Rome, told the New York Times that she is encouraging the city to clean up its garbage and create a program to teach Romans and tourists not to feed or leave food out for the gulls.
Rome has shown signs of heeding this advice. The city recently announced the addition of new iron garbage bins that will supposedly be gull-proof. This more bird-friendly approach seems to recognize that the gulls are merely following their instincts and taking what their habitat offers, and lowering their number is best achieved by removing a food source instead of resorting to harsher measures.
For some tourists, the gulls have become a part of the Roman experience. They are now ubiquitous at popular sites like the Colosseum and Forum, and some tourists, to the chagrin of locals who have to deal with the gulls daily, seem to enjoy feeding the birds, which are savvy enough to act friendly when offered a snack.
Seagulls are obviously comfortable in their adopted habitat, so even with successful cleanup efforts, they'll likely be living in the Eternal City for a long, long time.