Every Bird Matters
news and views from international bird rescue

Guest Posts

March 26, 2017

They’re Not “Seagulls”— and Other Fun Gull Facts!

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!

 

November 30, 2013

Guest post: Keeping watch over Brown Pelicans

Banded Brown Pelican Coming Down

Anna WeinsteinBy Anna Weinstein, Audubon California

The Brown Pelican is California’s iconic coastal bird and one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act. While pelicans have dramatically recovered in the last 30 years, they have since suffered unprecedented breeding failures and starvation events in California and Oregon, likely due to poor availability of prey. Audubon California is leading a set of concerned groups urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete key tasks required under the Endangered Species Act in order to secure the future of these beloved birds.

Globally, there are six subspecies of Brown Pelican. Most California Brown Pelicans breed in the Gulf of California (MX), and the rest in Southern California, mostly at the Channel Islands. In 2009, three subspecies including the California Brown Pelican were triumphantly removed from the Endangered Species List — a great success story populated with conservation heroes who worked to remove harmful chemicals from the pelicans’ environment and protect breeding islands.

Also in 2009, the Service issued a draft plan for monitoring pelicans following delisting. These “post-delisting monitoring plans” (PDM’s) are required by the Endangered Species Act in order to “monitor effectively for not less than five years” the status of a species following delisting. In the words of the Service, “the intent of this monitoring is to determine whether the species should be proposed for relisting, or kept off the list because it remains neither threatened or endangered.”

However, the Service never finalized or implemented the draft plan and no systematic monitoring has taken place, which undermines protection of pelicans in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California and the west coast. In the meantime, Brown Pelicans in California and Oregon have been showing signs of stress. At the U.S. Channel Islands, the most important U.S. breeding colony for this subspecies, biologists have noticed a decline in nest success starting in 2010, culminating in near-total nest failures in 2012 and 2013. These failures have been attributed to a lack of prey in proximity to the islands.

Additionally, unusual mortality events of Brown Pelicans in Oregon and California in 2009-2012 have been attributed to starvation. Many Audubon chapter members and leaders, including Dave Weeshoff, President of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and a volunteer with International Bird Rescue, have observed first-hand the unusual number of starving and disoriented pelicans, especially in Southern California.

Scientific studies have shown that breeding pelicans in California and in the Gulf of Mexico require anchovies and sardines to feed their young. In Peli IMG_0221-Mrecent years, both sardines and anchovies have been scarce or absent from this region due to a variety of factors including overfishing, climate change, and underlying natural variability. The Service is obligated to work with fisheries managers to ensure that sufficient prey is available to breeding and non-breeding pelicans. Right now, with no plan in place to guide monitoring and coordination, these essential activities are not taking place.

Audubon California and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments calling for the Service to act on its obligation to Brown Pelicans by finalizing a post delisting monitoring plan as required by the Endangered Species Act, and undertaking critical steps to better understand and track breeding success of Brown Pelicans at the U.S. Channel Islands, among other things. The Pacific Seabird Group, the scientific body for Pacific seabirds, also weighed in with similar concerns. The Service has responded by acknowledging the need to finalize the PDM and undertake focused monitoring and conservation activities for California Brown Pelicans. We will keep you updated as we work with the Service to reach these important objectives.

Anna Weinstein is a conservation biologist with over 15 years’ experience in policy analysis and advocacy, ecology, strategic planning and program development. In 1996 she co-founded Island Conservation, and later worked as a biologist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and as a program officer at the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. In 2008 she joined Audubon California to lead the seabird and marine program, focused on protecting seabirds and their habitats, and raising public awareness about the west coast’s seabirds and marine environment.

Guest post cross-linked from Audublog. Lead pelican photo by Marlin Harms. Pelicans in flight photo (right) by Bill Steinkamp.

Related:

Associated Press: “Sardine crash may be hurting Brown Pelicans,” November 28, 2013