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Nature: Inland gulls follow rivers

Sunday, January 13, 2002

By Scott Shalaway

Almost every January I get letters and e-mail sounding something like this: "I've been seeing sea gulls along rivers and in parking lots at grocery stores and malls. Can you please explain this?"


Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to sshalaway@aol.com, and catch Scott on the radio every Saturday from 3 to 4 p.m. on 1360 WPTT.


Of the 20 or so species of gulls that inhabit North America, most live and nest in coastal areas. Anyone who has vacationed along Atlantic or Pacific beaches has certainly been entertained by gulls. But more than a few species occur inland as well.

Franklin's gulls nest on the prairies of the northern Great Plains. Bonaparte's gulls (named after a French zoologist who happened to be a distant cousin of Napoleon) nest on the edges of the boreal forest near lakes and bogs in Canada and Alaska.

California gulls nest near lakes throughout the inland west. This is the bird that rescued the Mormons' crops from a grasshopper plague in 1848. It is the state bird of Utah and honored by a monument in Salt Lake City. Ring-billed gulls nest throughout the Great Plains and Great Lakes area, and their range seems to be expanding. And herring gulls occur across the northern third of the continent. They are especially common and widespread in the Northeast.

Though the term "sea gull" is commonly used to describe all gulls, it's obviously a misnomer. Most gulls do, however, winter along coastal areas. Franklin's gulls migrate all the way to the west coast of South America. Many other species spend the winter along Southern United States coastal waters.

Ring-billed and herring gulls winter along the shores of both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico, and they also venture inland along major river systems. These are the gulls we see in winter. Winter range maps for these species follow the Mississippi River and its major tributaries all the way to the Great Lakes.

Ring-billed gulls are about 18 inches long and have a 4-foot wing span.

The yellow bill is encircled by a prominent black ring near the tip; hence its name. Herring gulls are even larger -- about 25 inches long. And their wings span nearly 5 feet.

Another reason we see gulls so far inland is that they have adapted extremely well to human disturbance. Gulls are scavengers; they eat just about anything. Ask anyone who has tried to picnic on an Atlantic beach. Laughing gulls, in particular, can be real pests. They seem to think we created garbage dumps, landfills and fast-food restaurant trash bins as feeding stations just for them.

In nature, gull eat fish, carrion, insects, mollusks and crustaceans. Some gulls carry hard-shelled mollusks high into the air and drop them on rocks to break them. Others can be surprisingly predatory. The great black-backed gull, for example, is the largest gull in North America and also eats rodents, small birds, eggs and chicks. A few years ago off the Maine coast, I saw one of these predators in action. It sailed over a raft of common eiders (a type of sea duck), dropped into the flock, picked up a duckling and swallowed it whole.

If you see gulls in what seems unusual places this winter, you're not alone. But look around for the reason. You're probably within a few miles of a major river or lake, and there's probably an open trash bin nearby.

Local conservation

Last week's column on conservation organizations resulted in some mail asking why I hadn't included any local or regional organizations. That column was devoted to organizations with national constituencies. Here are two deserving regional organizations. (While the Pittsburgh Zoo and the National Aviary certainly deserve mention, their conservation efforts have an international emphasis.)

Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, 614 Dorseyville Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15238; www.aswp.org. Established 1916. Inspires and educates the people of western Pennsylvania to be respectful and responsible stewards of the natural world. Join ASWP directly rather than through the National Audubon Society to keep your dues working locally.

Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 209 Fourth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222; www.paconserve.org. Established 1932. Works to save and manage natural areas in Western Pennsylvania by purchasing them and protecting them forever.

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