IF ever you feel like initiating a lively debate, ask your companions to nominate their least favourite bird.

Some will plump for bullying magpies and crows, others will choose the herons that empty their garden ponds of goldfish and there will be those who go for invasive, screeching ring-necked parakeets. Sparrowhawks may find support from those horrified by seeing one eating a live small bird in their gardens.

Sports club groundsmen will unhesitatingly pick the geese that defile their beautifully manicured pitches with excrement.

But there is one species we almost all love to hate – gulls. From the housewife infuriated by their droppings on her fresh washing to the motorist enraged by their bombing raids on sparkling metal, they are disliked by just about everyone. A tendency to steal ice creams, sandwiches and anything else they can get their beaks on surely makes these birds collectively and wrongly known as “seagulls” the avian world's public enemy number one.

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Even experienced birdwatchers occasionally ignore gulls because they cannot be bothered identifying a species adorned with several bewilderingly different plumage disguises throughout their lives. A new book aims to assist the beginner and seasoned birder with this arduous and time-consuming task.

Gulls of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East is the most up-to-date and comprehensive gull guide available. Gull identification has advanced meteorically since Peter Grant published the first monograph on the species in 1982. The emergence of a group of gull enthusiasts, called larophiles, has extended boundaries of gull knowledge and recognition.

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They will purr over a book illustrated with 1,400 colour photographs and detailed accounts of all species and subspecies found in the Western Palearctic.

Those with less experience will benefit from taking it into the field to study gulls. They are easy to find in parks, on sports pitches and council rubbish tips in areas far from the sea.

After a few spotting sessions armed with this book you may be tempted to become a larophile.