Western Gulls and their three chicks at their a nest at the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco.
By Joanna Chin
Photos by Byron Chin
I have been a fan of gulls for over fifteen years. Amusingly enough, what piqued my interest was the gulls in the movie Finding Nemo. While those gulls were not the brightest, and thus their portrayal not the most accurate, I was so amused by them that I started paying more attention to the gulls around me. When you really look at them, gulls are beautiful, with their crisp white and gray feathers. They’re also adaptable—equally at ease on land, in the air, and on the water. While anyone can look at a gull and identify it as such, defining them is a challenge: My guide to North American Gulls defines them as a “widespread group of frequently gregarious, web-footed birds characteristically found near water.” I’ve learned a lot about gulls over the years, and though there is still so much for me to learn, I want to share some of my favorite gull facts so that you, too, might appreciate these intelligent and resourceful seabirds more.
• While many people refer to them as “seagulls,” this is a misnomer. Some gull species travel far inland, such as the Ring-billed Gull, and others are quite satisfied to hang around large lakes, rivers, and shipping channels.
• Gulls have an intricate system of communication. They’re big, strong birds that nest close to one another, and their extensive “vocabulary” helps to minimize fighting that could injure them or their chicks. This video from the Cornell Laboratory identifies and explains many of their calls. Next time you’re around a group of gulls, see if you can hear them making these calls—each species sounds a bit different, but they all have the same range of calls.
A pair of California Gulls and their two chicks. The male is giving the female a nice preen.
• Gulls have impressive site fidelity. They will return to the same area year after year to build their nests and raise their chicks. In the case of migratory gull species, many of these are faithful to their wintering sites, returning to the same territory winter after winter. If you pay attention to your local gulls, you will likely start to notice individuals hanging out in the same place every year!
• Gulls are monogamous. Most will stay with the same mate for many years, though “gull divorce” has been documented, often when there is conflict over nest-site or brooding duties or when one member of the pair is late returning to the nesting grounds. In addition, both males and females sometimes mate with birds other than their mate; these so-called “extra-pair copulations” occur with varying frequency amongst gull species.
Juvenile Western Gull by the Ferry Building takes a curious approach to a fisheye lens.
• Gulls are excellent parents. Both parents participate equally in incubating, guarding, and feeding the chicks well past fledging. They are fiercely protective and readily attack (including dive-bombing) people and other animals (including other gulls) that get too close to their nests. It is wise to keep your distance from gull nests, and to pay attention to the calls of the parents. If they’re vocalizing, they are telling you to step back from the nest!
• It takes time for a gull to grow up. All gulls require more than one year to reach maturity. If you’ve ever watched gulls for any length of time, you’ve probably seen gulls that were the size of adults but were completely brown. These are the “first cycle” gulls, the ones that hatched within the past year. Smaller-sized gull species may require as few as two years to reach adult plumage, whereas the larger gull species need four years. As they mature, gulls lose their brown feathers, replacing them with white/gray/black feathers. Many gulls also have color changes in their bills and feet.
Seagull Monument, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Wikipedia
• Gulls can be heroes. According to Mormon legend, in the spring of 1848, the first group of Mormons in what is now Salt Lake City planted their crops, only to have a swarm of insects (now known as Mormon crickets) descend upon their fields and begin eating everything in sight. Soon after, large numbers of California Gulls arrived and began consuming vast numbers of the insects, thus saving the crops and ensuring the survival of the Mormon settlers. Thus, the California Gull was designated as the state bird of Utah. In addition, the Seagull Monument was erected in Salt Lake City in honor of the California Gull.
• Gulls thrive where humans reside. Most people are well aware of this: Anyone who’s been to the beach has likely seen (or been the victim of) gulls scavenging food. Gulls are intelligent and patient scavengers. They know our habits and where to find an easy meal. Instead of getting upset, consider that we are the ones making this behavior possible. We must change our behavior to change theirs. Gull overpopulation has become a serious issue in some areas, including having a negative impact on other bird species, particularly ground-nesting shorebirds, as gulls eat their eggs and chicks.
The Western Gull is a scavenger and temptations abound when human garbage is plentiful.
Ways you can help:
– Never, ever feed the gulls! In addition to teaching them bad habits, much of our food is harmful to their health.
– Dispose of food waste appropriately, in a covered bin. Don’t leave food unattended, such as in an open bag on the beach. Even a sealed bag of chips is easy pickings for a hungry gull!
– Reduce the amount of food you discard from your home. Instead of sending food scraps to the landfill, consider composting! Your plants will thank you, too.
Now, head out there and watch some gulls! Most places, especially along the California coast, feature multiple species of gulls. Read more here about basic identification of common gull species!