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Seagull Savvy

Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand; It’s never good weather when you’re on the land.
-Old mariner’s weather proverb

Ospreys, egrets, herons, pelicans, cormorants, ducks and many other sorts of waterfowl wing about our coast, but there is no more common and dominant bird around the littoral zone than the seagull. There are dozens of species and sub-species of gulls and they range nearly everywhere in the world, a testament to the heartiness and adaptability of these coastal scavengers. Despite the diversity of the species, gulls throughout the world share many common characteristics in terms of breeding, habitat, life cycle, diet and behavior.
Seagulls are birds in the family Laridae. They aremost closely related to the terns (family Sternidae) and only distantly related to auks, and skimmers, and more distantly to the waders. Most gulls, however, belong to the large family named Larus. The word Larus is from the Greek word meaning “ravenous sea bird.”
The term “seagull” can be misleading because many species of gulls live, feed and nest inland. Seagulls can be found around the oceans worldwide, with the exception of some central Pacific islands and some areas in Southeast Asia. The gulls are relatively uniform in shape but do vary in size and coloration. Seagulls are the acrobats of the sky, making the seemingly impossible antics appear effortless. They can float motionless in midair by catching wind currents with perfect timing and precision while positioning their bodies at just the right angle.
The seagull is perhaps best known as a scavenger. Itis most often seen in large, noisy flocks congregating wherever food is available. They can almost always be found around fishing boats, picnic grounds, parking lots and garbage dumps. Many people consider the gull to be a nuisance, but they actually perform a very valuable service. They are garbage men (sanitation engineers for the politically correct) with wings. They scavenge up great numbers of dead animals and organic litter which could otherwise pose a health risk.
Gulls tend to nest on the ground (though some examples of the birds nesting on trees or rooftops have been observed) and both the male and female share nesting duties as well as feeding the young by regurgitation. Unlike most other birds, gulls can move their eyes in the eye socket and nearly all of them share the ability to drink seawater since they contain special glands over their eyes that allow them to secrete salt. The salty excretion can be seen dripping out of the gull’s nostrils and off the end of its bill.
In some species, life expectancy can exceed 30 years and probably most interestingly, although daily regular feeding of gulls by humans can develop a seemingly “domesticated” behavior, most ornithologists agree that it is nearly impossible to keep a gull in captivity without the birds eventually killing themselves inan attempt to escape. And as for feeding gulls, it is NOT recommended that you try doing so since they are very aggressive feeders and carry several types of bacteria in their beaks which can cause severe infections if they nip your hand.
Perhaps one of the most interesting behaviors of gulls stems from their fondness for shellfish, and it’s not at all uncommon to observe them dropping shellfish on hard surfaces like docks and parking lots to crack the shells open to get at the meat within.
We have several species of gulls common to our area but the two most prominent are the herring gull and the laughing gull. Many people mistakenly think that there are many more species present because of the coloration of the birds, but the appearance of the gull changes much during its life and with the change of seasons.
The herring gull is considered by most to be the quintessential seagull. It is one of the larger gulls and ranges throughout most of North America. When hatched, the young herring gulls have a speckled grey-white plumage. As juveniles, the feathers take on a more brownish/white hue. And adults in full breeding plumage appear mostly white on the head and breast with grey wings, black tail feathers and the distinctive yellow beak.
The laughing gull is smaller than the herring gull and, as its name suggests, it’s the one you hear squawking its “laugh” around the waterfront. During the winter months, its feathers are nearly all grey, but during summer and breeding season it sports a white breast, black head, grey wings and red beak.
A lot of people − especially boaters who have to constantly combat the onslaught of highly corrosive seagull droppings all over their docks and decks − refer to seagulls as “sky rats,” and I’ve even seen some mariners attempt to kill a gull. But to me, they are very noble, adaptive and special birds. Sailors of old used to say that seagulls carry the souls of those lost at sea, and I don’t argue with that superstition.
And as for the opening quotation, generally speaking, birds tend to roost more during times of low pressure, like storms. Especially before a hurricane, flocks of gulls will be seen roosting. This may be because taking off is harder when the pressure is low or the air is thinner, and since the natural updrafts are lessened.
Think what good or bad you may about seagulls, but NOTHING harkens that you are near the sea more than when you hear the cry of a gull.