Wild Profile: Meet the herring gull

Published: November 17, 2020

A herring gull perches on a frozen lake By Carrie Olson/Shutterstock

Life as a herring gull—a.k.a. seagull—isn’t easy. Especially for birds living closer to urban areas or near the Great Lakes. Colonies can get large and loud, with birds fighting each other for scraps. The gulls typically gather near food sources, and for a gull, almost anything is a food source: small fish and mollusks; mice; bugs; berries; garbage; French fries; KFC bones…yum! Gulls will even cannibalize the nestlings of their gull neighbours. The birds that survive in this gull-eat-gull world can live for a long time—up to roughly 30 years in the wild. (One captive herring gull lived until 50.)

Beyond each other, herring gull predators include birds of prey—eagles, hawks, and falcons—and small carnivores such as mink and foxes. Well, and humans. At the beginning of the 20th century, these birds almost went extinct because of egg collecting and feather plucking (the feathers were used in ladies’ hats). Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, pesticides in the aquatic food chain caused thin eggshells, hormone problems, and bird deformities. Not a great time for the gulls. Maybe they still hold a grudge: seagulls are known for “attacking” people at the beach. (Truth: experts say that if a gull is dive-bombing you, it’s probably just because you’re too close to a nest.)

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Speaking of nests and breeding, herring gulls have one of the longest and most elaborate courtship rituals of the bird world. Over a period of two months or more, a male will strut around, offering gifts—usually food—to potential mates. Once a pair gets together, there’s a lot of bill rubbing and mutual preening. It’s the female who initiates mating, though, by pecking the male’s chest. I choose you.

Gull chicks can walk within a few days of being born. While adults are hardy enough to stick around the Great Lakes through the winter, by late November, young’uns have begun a late-fall migration to Florida or the Gulf Coast of the U.S.

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