American herring gulls

The herring gull juvenile, front, takes several years to reach its complete adult plumage, right. (Dick Daniels, carolinabirds.org / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like many others, I have been caught up in the genealogy craze. Digital databases of population records and user-friendly software have made research into one’s ancestors easier than ever. I knew little of my family history, so the exercise has been enlightening.

I spent a morning last year at a beachfront house we were renting, piecing together the story of my Irish forebears. As I slipped my day’s notes into a folder, I could hear the raucous call of gulls. They were swirling, crying and looking for food scraps.

Some people dismiss these birds as “rats with wings,” but I was curious. Grabbing my jacket, I went out for a closer look.

A pair of noisy birds were joined by a third and then a fourth. These bulky, white-bodied gulls with gray wings were raising a ruckus, but they were about to be disappointed. I saw a neighbor hoist a well-sealed trash bag into a dumpster. He then carefully flipped the lid closed. No free eats that day.

Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) are the most numerous, widespread and adaptable of the large gulls that breed on this continent.

Adults are about 2 feet long from bill tip to tail end. Wingspans reach more than 4 feet, and the birds weigh 2.5 pounds.

From September to February, adult herring gulls have gray-brown streaking on their necks and heads. Their bodies and tails are brilliant white year-round. The light silver-gray wings end in black tips with white spots. The yellow bill is deep but fairly narrow. A subterminal red dot on the bottom bill helps with identification.

Come March, these gulls will molt into their breeding plumage, resulting in all-white heads and necks to go with the rest of their bodies.

Like many gulls, the herring takes several years to reach its complete adult plumage. Juveniles are uniformly brown. Feathers becomes paler with each annual molt cycle. Typically, when birds reach age 4, their adult palette of white, gray and black is complete. Sexes look alike.

The herring gull is closely related to the lesser black-backed gull as well as the glaucous-winged, Iceland and Thayer’s gulls. Frequent hybridization among these species occurs. With all those color variations and hybrids, identifying herring gulls can be challenging.

To make matters worse, scientists can’t even agree on what constitutes a herring gull. The authoritative Birds of the World database reports there are five subspecies of herring gull found in three groups over four continents. Then, the reference work adds, some scientists count up to nine subspecies in five groups. Confused yet?

In North America, herring gulls breed from Alaska to the Maritime Provinces and down through the Great Lakes. Along the Atlantic Coast, a year-round population is established from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The species winters along the Pacific coast from Alaska to parts of Central America.

Winter birds can also be found in the U.S. South and Gulf Coast. During migration, they can be seen in every state and province.

Herring gulls are omnivores. They eat fish, shellfish, smaller birds, eggs, worms, bugs, carrion and human trash.

Typically, they forage for food on land (from pristine beaches to farm fields to landfills) or in the water (from tidal pools to man-made reservoirs to drainage ditches). They range from saltwater environs to freshwater lakes and river systems.

These birds, which can live 30 years or more, mate for life.

Over a monthlong period, parents share the responsibility of sitting on the eggs. After the new birds hatch, mom and dad feed the chicks for 45–50 days before the youngsters leave the nest. Even then, parental involvement continues, supplementing the diet of the young birds for another two months.

These are intelligent, highly adaptable creatures, but they are not immune to every threat. Though still quite numerous, herring gull populations in North America have plummeted more than 80% in the last 50 years. Climate change and massive human alterations of the landscape are the prime reasons.

A bit of research has revealed that my Irish ancestors left the Emerald Isle during the Great Hunger, also known as the Potato Famine. I was surprised to learn that John Burke and his wife, Bridget Grady, went first to England to work in the textile mills. They raised a large family before uprooting them all 20 years later to ship out for New England, becoming part of the great wave of Irish immigrants in the 1880s.

As I researched the herring gull, I kept seeing reflections of my own family. Lots of relatives with confusing names, blurred boundaries, long periods of parental devotion, endless adaptation to challenging circumstances, scraping by with whatever food was at hand. This wasn’t an exercise in anthropomorphizing the gulls. It felt more like a recognition that we humans aren’t so different.

On a personal note, my 140-year generic history about desperate immigrants coming to North America was giving way to a rich human story about actual ancestors. Increasingly, the survival story of these noisy seagulls was revealing a similarly rich tale, full of avian families connected across oceans, struggling to adapt in a constantly changing world. 

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

(2) comments

Mike B

You are so right! Seagulls is a term of common usage, but has no ornithological meaning. The word gulls is the right term.

L.Lewislewislf

M.Burke-I generally enjoy your columns and find them accurate-your last paragraph about Herring Gulls uses the term "seagulls"-please show me where that is an ornithologically acceptable term! I believe "gulls" is acceptable. regards lewislf@msn.com

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