Nantucket Sea Gulls

Si – Si – I See Sea Gulls!
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

Well actually – NO – you don’t! The term “sea gull” is one of the common mistakes made by the birding beginner, right up there with “Canadian Geese” (the correct term is “Canada Geese”). It makes no difference that there is a bird known as the “Mexican Duck,” not the “Mexico Duck.” This bird watching business is not for sissies!

Birders use the term “gulls” or use the species name. This week we are examining the Herring Gull, the gull which people are normally referring to when they say “seagull.” This is our most common gull, seen year ‘round here on Nantucket. It’s virtually impossible to look up in the sky from anywhere on the island and not see a Herring Gull, or two, or three.

It wasn’t always this way. Edith Andrews remembers Herring Gulls as strictly winter birds when she first arrived here in the late 30s. Our summer gull was the Laughing Gull, which is now uncommon. Arthur Cleveland Bent’s write-up in 1920 shows the Herring Gull’s southern breeding limit to be Penobscot Bay up in Maine. By the time Edith wrote her Nantucket bird book in 1948, the Herring Gull had become an “abundant” permanent resident, breeding commonly.

This spread of the Herring Gull shows the species has a lot in common with humans – and starlings! As a species it is an adaptive and very successful competitor. Over the latter part of the 20th century, it has spread southwards to now breed clear down into Chesapeake Bay. Doing so, it has displaced other gull species, notably the smaller Laughing Gull.

Herring Gulls are big, with wingspans of almost five feet. The adult is mainly white with a silver gray “mantle” and black wing tips. The mantle is the upper surface of the wing and extends across the back as well. The Latin name “Larus argentatus”, silver gull, says it well. The legs are flesh-colored and the beak is yellow, showing a large orange spot on the lower part. In the winter, the head becomes streaked with gray. Unfortunately for birders, not all Herring Gulls look like this.

Herring Gulls fall into a group of gulls known as “four year” gulls. That is, it takes four years to attain the neat-looking gray and white plumage mentioned above. A first winter Herring Gull is almost solid brown with a black bill. Succeeding years bring these gulls through a progressively lighter series of plumages until reaching adulthood. The sexes are similar. Only the gulls themselves can tell the boys from the girls. So, when you are looking at a gray and white Herring Gull, you are viewing one that has survived at least four years out in nature. Actually they can be quite long lived. One particular individual is known to have reached age 24 in the wild.

This species has very few natural enemies other than man. Not long ago in Labrador, Herring Gull eggs were considered a staple. The young birds were also taken and fattened up for the stew pot. Now in this age of “enlightenment”, the Herring Gull’s chief enemy is another gull – the Great Black-backed Gull. This bigger, aggressive gull is now pushing the Herring Gull out of many of its breeding territories.

Listen to the call of the Herring Gull.

Herring Gull behavior is fascinating to watch. One particularly neat thing they do is fly up in the air with a scallop or other shellfish, then let it fall to a hard surface so that it breaks open for a feast. Scientists have been studying this because it is an example of learned behavior, rather than an innate part of every Herring Gull. Not all parts of the population know how to do this. It’s necessary for young gulls to observe other gulls doing it before they try it themselves. Some gulls spend time dropping shells on surfaces that are not hard enough to do the job, such as beach sand.

Others become quite the experts. I’ve watched an adult gull with a scallop next to the Grand Union parking lot. The bird spread its wings and easily rose ten feet up using the headwind, not even bothering to flap. I kept expecting it to drop the shell, but no, back down it came, only to repeat the process. I think it was getting a feel for the wind, so it could control where the shell would strike the ground. Finally on about the fifth try, the scallop was dropped to neatly hit the brick walkway, and the gull quickly dropped down and began extricating its dinner.

The roof of the Marine Home Center lumber storage area is a favorite dropping spot and at times, it sounds like a hailstorm is going on, when the gulls are trying to break into moon snails.

So, the Herring Gull is a ubiquitous and very enjoyable part of Nantucket’s bird life. To experience it at its best, watch them on a day when the wind is so strong you can hardly stand up. Then look skyward and marvel at the way these fliers master our gales, gliding back and forth at great speed. It’s hard not to be aware of the exhilaration they must feel, high in the sky, with the world streaming past them.

Ken Blackshaw is the author of more than ten books focusing mainly on natural history subjects. He writes the weekly bird column for the Nantucket Independent, and has just published Volume Three of his “A Year of Birding Nantucket” series.

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

Originally published in the Nantucket Independent, November 28, 2003.

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