Hark to the whimper of the sea-gull;
He weeps because he’s not an ea-gull.
Suppose you were, you silly sea-gull.
Could you explain it to your she-gull?
– Ogden Nash
It’s hard to pity the gull.
The seagull is gregarious, opportunistic and omnivorous to the core, and is found at every beach, wayside and parking lot on the Oregon Coast — anywhere there’s food to be had. What other bird will alight just two feet from your picnic lunch and look you straight in the eye?
“Well?” You can almost hear it say. “Are you going to eat that?”
Perhaps, like a braggart athlete, this bird suffers from its own confidence, at least in the public relations arena. It has been called a rat with wings and a noisy nuisance, accused of spreading disease and of preying on more vulnerable bird populations. The gifts it leaves behind — on vehicles, stairways, decks and, worst of all, on heads and shoulders — only serve to cement its bad reputation. What’s a gull to do?
We’ll start with the facts, and try to dispel a few rumors flying around about this adaptable creature.
Which gulls make their home on the central coast?
The most common gull species here is the Western gull, Larus occidentalis. It’s a large gull, 24 to 26 inches long with a 4-½ foot wingspan. Generally, it has a dark gray back and wings, a white head and underparts, yellow to dark eyes, yellow bill with a red spot and pink legs. The Western is the only species that breeds here, so it’s commonly seen throughout the year. A flock of large gulls in a parking lot is likely to be mostly Western gulls with a smattering of glaucous-winged gulls, flying on the southern edge of their Pacific Northwest territory.
Where do they nest?
Western gulls breed in April, making nests of vegetation on offshore islands and inaccessible cliffs, as well as under bridges, on flat roofs and on pilings around estuaries. They generally lay two to three eggs, with the hatchlings staying on the nest as late as August. One of the best places on the Central Coast to observe the offshore breeding behavior is at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, said Roy Lowe, former refuge manager for the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex. He likes observing the Western gulls in the breeding zone for another reason, too. “The only way to tell the sexes apart is when they are standing together in pairs,” he said. “The female is a slightly smaller bird, with a smaller head. It’s fun to be able to know who’s who.”
What do they eat?
The Western gull’s natural diet is open-ocean and intertidal invertebrates, and fish. It will follow marine mammals to scavenge fish and is a major predator (eggs to adults) of seabird colonies. “As a group, they are generalists that can eat all sorts of things: garbage, bugs, fish, sea stars, and the young and eggs of other sea birds,” said ornithologist Wayne Hoffman, who manages the Mid-coast Watersheds Council. “People have celebrated gulls in the past, saying that they clean up otherwise smelly stuff on the beaches. Their effectiveness at that is probably exaggerated, but they probably do eat a lot of carrion.” They can swallow foods of tremendous variety and size; Lowe said that in the 1980s, when gulls had unfettered access to open dumps, he saw chicken bones and spare ribs that had been regurgitated at gulleries.
One Oregon Coast TODAY reader tells the story of a gull that swooped down on a bucket of crab bait on a Newport dock and, after some difficulty, swallowed a full-sized chicken drumstick.
What else do they do well?
“They’re very good fliers, and for the size of their wings they have relatively small body masses,” Hoffman said. “That makes them good soarers, with a slow stall speed.” Compare seagulls to common murres, which have heavy bodies in proportion to their wings. “The murre has to flap really fast to get going. It can fly fast, but it can’t fly slow,” Hoffman said. “If it eased up on power, it would fall out of the sky. Gulls, on the other hand, are good at using air currents, so you’ll often see them soaring along just above the edges of the bluff, where there’s an updraft.” Often seen dropping crustaceans onto rocks to break their shells, or stealing food from much larger animals, gulls are thought to be clever and resourceful.
Do Western gulls migrate?
Yes, Lowe said, “but we don’t have a good handle on exactly where they go. Thousands are born and breed in the Farallon Islands (in San Francisco Bay), and then come up here. Some go south from there, to southern California.” In the mid-1980s, Lowe took part in a project that banded gulls from this area, and tracked their movements through observation reports from the public. One bird born here was found near Half Moon Bay, California.
Where can I see the more unusual gulls?
Not all gulls are as gregarious as the Western and glaucous-winged, and instead like to forage off shore whenever they can. During a heavy storm, however, strong winds will blow these ocean-going gulls into shore, and they congregate with other gulls at the mouths of rivers, or in more protected estuaries. Head out right after a storm has passed, and use a scope or pair of binoculars to spot the newcomers in the flock. “After storms, you can sometimes see gulls like the black legged kittiwake, which breeds in Alaska and is normally found offshore,” Lowe said. “If I’ve got a scope, I look for different species and leg bands, noting what color and on which leg.” Later, he’ll report his leg band notes to the national bird banding lab.
Are there other species that spend part of the year in Oregon?
Yes, as many as a dozen different gulls visit outside of the nesting season, Lowe said. They include ring-billed, California, mew and Thayer’s gulls. In the late summer and early fall, around the same time as the migration of brown pelicans, the coast is also host to Heermann’s Gulls, which are smaller, dusky gulls with dark red, black tipped bills. Gulls breed in many different locations, both on the coast and far inland, which is why the term “sea gull” is not factually correct, Lowe said.
What’s the easiest way to identify the gull species I see?
Bring a field guide and cross your fingers. Large gulls can be very difficult to identify, even for avid birders, for several reasons. First, plumage will change significantly for the first three to four years of life. All the juveniles of the larger species, the Western, glaucous-wing, herring and Thayer’s gulls, are variations of mottled brown and gray from head to tail. Second, the hybrid mix of the Western and glaucous-wing gull has many different expressions and patterns, and can sometimes resemble a juvenile of either species. Third, said ornithologist Wayne Hoffman, spots and markings on feathers tend to fade over time, so that a bird may look very different from August to the following April. Some of the smaller gulls, like the Heermann’s, Bonaparte’s and ring-billed, have more distinct adult features.
Do gulls spread disease or illness to humans?
Gulls got their infectious reputation, in part, from their love for garbage scows, fish processing plants and city dumps, which provided a ready source of food for these scavengers. At one time, two decades ago, rodent fleas were found on Farallon Island, presumably transported with the garbage by the gulls. But there’s no evidence to suggest that fleas, or any of the viruses they might carry, were ever passed from gull to human. What’s more, nearly all the garbage from the coast is transported to a central facility, where it is usually covered with soil right away, Lowe said, leaving no time for a gull colony to get settled. Hoffman adds a caution: “I cannot think of any communicable diseases that are regularly spread from gulls to humans. But if the avian flu gets here, people who are feeding gulls or around them, like researchers, might be at greater risk.”
Is it OK to feed the gulls?
Hoffman said that while feeding a gull your day-old bread doesn’t really hurt it, it doesn’t really help it either. “The bread is probably not as nutritious as what they tend to eat on their own,” he said, “but it’s not doing any damage.” Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Audubon Society of Portland, disagrees. “Bread is particularly bad for birds, in that it expands after being ingested and can cause serious digestive tract problems,” he said. The biggest problem, biologists say, is in attracting large numbers of birds on a regular basis, to the same location, where bird illnesses can quickly spread. For most restaurant, hotel and homeowners on the beach, it’s not a question of bird endocrinology or avian flu, but simple math: Feeding the gulls = more gulls = more mess.
The next time you’re watching the gulls plying the updraft or eating mussels with gusto, perhaps you’ll see gulls in a new light — more like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that most enlightened of birds, than that pack of idiots, the “Mine! Mine!” gang from the movie, “Finding Nemo.”
“For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight.”
– Richard Bach,
Jonathan Livingston Seagull