Nature Notes: Herring Gull
As a boy growing up in Western NY farm country, I frequently saw large flocks of dazzling white birds on the fields. They were often following a tractor plowing up new ground, or spreading cow manure. We knew these birds by the term “seagulls.” It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I visited the waterfront of New York City and found thousands of similar white birds in the air, on the water, and sitting on roof tops. A birding friend told me that there are dozens of species of gulls, and that the laymen’s generic term “seagull” doesn’t do justice to these clever, tough survivors.
A quick look at a birding book showed nearly 60 different species of gulls around the world. They are found on all seven continents, and while they generally live near water, one species, the grey gull, breeds in the desert. While most gulls exhibit migratory behavior, their travels vary from short trips along the East Coast, to the Franklin’s gull which migrates from Canada all the way to the southern parts of South America. Body sizes and coloration vary considerably among the gulls, and with a good deal of cross breeding in the wild, identifying individual species can be challenging.
Locally, one of the most common gulls is the herring gull, although you can regularly spot ring-billed gulls and black backed gulls, depending on your location. These are sizable birds, with adult bodies more than two pounds, and wing spans more than 24 inches. Coloration varies considerably by age and by season, as it takes four years for them to reach the startling white, grey and black adult plumage. Long legs with webbed feet allow them to walk, wade or swim with ease, and a strong yellow beak is the business end of things. Watching a gull soaring on ocean breezes is a wonderful thing, as they use subtle changes in wing position to soar and glide great distances with little obvious effort.
Most gulls nest on the ground, laying one to three mottled brown and tan eggs in nests made with vegetation. The young are dark mottled brown and mobile almost immediately after hatching. Adults will feed chicks for several weeks until they can feed on their own. The adults are highly social birds, forming great flocks for breeding and foraging. A breeding pair is generally monogamous, staying together for years.
Gulls are among the most adaptable of all birds, and may be found in a wide variety of habitats. In addition to the fields mentioned earlier, gulls can be found feeding along rivers and lakes, on coastal sites including mud flats and inland taking advantage of landfills or city parks. Their diets are diverse, from mussels, crabs, sea urchins and squid, to forage fish, insects, smaller birds and eggs, and occasionally, unguarded French fries. Gulls normally feed on the surface, or by dipping their heads. They are not skilled divers but occasionally will take shallow plunges for food. Gulls also display the use of tools to obtain food, often dropping shellfish from the sky onto the rocks to open a tasty morsel. They have even been observed using pieces of bread to tempt bait fish to the surface.
No gull will win a singing contest with our favorite song birds. You may see them squawking at each other to warn competitors away from food. At times large flocks of gulls will come together with loud wailing calls to mob and harass predators and threatening intruders. But at times, they can seem almost comical as they strut, bob and beg for a morsel of food, all the while keeping a wary eye open for any threat.