Our Window on Nature

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Gulls: Anything But Gullible

Filed under: Birds — Lowell Christie -- August 30, 2014 @ 6:36 pm

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Jonathan Livingston Seagull, eat your heart out. The best browsing isn’t at the beach anymore; it’s at your local landfill. You’d better hurry, though. Word spreads fast, and almost every city dump in gull country already has a resident flock.

This doesn’t mean RVers won’t see these birds along the shoreline, however. A great many landfill gulls join their coastal cousins at the beach, snoozing until the rising tide laps at their feet. But when the dinner bell rings, they turn their backs on the beach and fly inland, swirling across cities large and small on their way to the local dump. In fact, the very presence of the steady supply of human refuse that is found at landfills has contributed to a burgeoning population of certain species of gulls.

According to the experts, gulls that subsist on garbage actually are able to rear more chicks than those who lay their eggs on the more traditional nesting grounds, depending on naturally occurring food. Back in the nether regions, gulls have to work for a living; at the city dump, food comes in by truck. People – birders, to be exact – arrive at both locales in vehicles and on foot to observe these interesting birds.

Identifying a mixed flock of gulls is almost as difficult as separating species of flycatchers, but at least the former are large and they sit around a lot. Gulls, however, don’t achieve full adult plumage until they are three or four years old; so, one is faced with a wonderful measure of patterns, bill shapes, and leg colors to sort and categorize. Only pros attempt to identify each gull – the rest of us focus mainly on first-year birds and grown-ups, and mentally mark most of the rest as “gull species, parentage unknown.” Still, we’ve spent many an hour “scoping” gulls that are lined up single file on the crest of a landfill or loafing on the beach at low tide.

By and large, gulls are a cantankerous lot, quarreling among themselves and with anyone else who carelessly flies within hearing range. Stealing food is their national pastime. It’s more trouble to go out and gather your own groceries than to wait for someone to pass by with a mouthful of food and then torment them into dropping the prize. And speaking of dropping …

Gulls who live along a rocky shore are avid mussel eaters, but even after they pry the mussel loose from the rock, they still have to break open its shell. Parking lots seem to be their surface of choice for completing this task. A gull flies over the (hopefully) empty lot and drops its mollusk from on high; the bird then swoops down and gulps the mussel morsel – or else picks it up and drops it again and again until the shell cracks. Businesspeople who weary of such aerial bombardment resort to painting the image of a gull on the parking lot. This strategy works pretty well, because no gull worth its weight in groceries is going to drop its mussel when there’s another gull nearby. Either that or it works until the paint or the novelty wears off.

Mussels are only a portion of the coastal gulls’ diet. One day we went fishing on the jetty near Eureka, California, and found it necessary to protect our bait bucket from the depredations of Western gulls. Opportunists to the core, these gulls figured it would be more convenient to steal our smelt than to go out and catch their own.

A yen for fish we can understand, but it’s hard to fathom a gull having a taste for starfish. If you’ve ever felt the sandpaperlike hide of these five-armed creatures, you can imagine how unpalatable they must be; yet, on at least two occasions, we’ve seen a gull loafing around on the pier, trying to digest a starfish one arm at a time. We couldn’t decide whether the process actually worked or whether the gull plucked up the starfish and then the starfish attached itself to the gull. Actually, neither of the gulls appeared too happy with its circumstances – but we mustn’t anthropomorphize.

We don’t intend to give the impression that gulls are tied to coastal areas. The whole concept of “seagulls” is actually a misnomer, as many gulls never see the ocean. To illustrate our point, here’s a little history lesson. Salt Lake City, Utah, can hardly claim to be a coastal metropolis; yet, it commemorates the heroic service that was provided by a flock of gulls during the summer of 1848.

The first wave of Mormon pioneers had scarcely settled into their new homeland before the threat of famine arrived in the shape of grasshoppers. Even reading about these pests makes your skin crawl, for great clouds of insects literally filled the sky – darkening the sun – as they ate their way through every field of grain. Soon there would be nothing left but empty wasteland if the grasshoppers continued their progress unchecked.

If the grasshoppers were like a plague out of the Old Testament, the gulls were like a miracle out of the New, for they arrived just at the moment of crisis and proceeded to harvest grasshoppers as efficiently as a combine harvests wheat. Enough of the Mormons’ crops survived to ward off starvation.

Gulls still eat grasshoppers in addition to garbage; they can be seen throughout much of the Midwest every spring, following farmers through freshly plowed acres. But whether you find them in fields munching insects or at the beach crunching shellfish, their actions are much the same. They may be as elegant and philosophical as Jonathan Livingston Seagull while in the air, but on land they are as noisy and quarrelsome as a gang of street thugs. But in spite of it – or because of it – a gull possesses its own kind of charm.

FMC1188


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