Seagulls: Interesting and Fun Facts

Seagull fun facts

Seagulls may not be the “nicest” of birds, but I think they are often under appreciated. They have such interesting individual personalities, and I love observing their behavior. Have you noticed that you can walk really close to a seagull on the beach, and as long as you don’t look at it, it stays put. But as soon as you look at them, even if you’re wearing sunglasses, they take off. They instantly know!

There’s technically no such thing as a “seagull.” Even though most call them seagulls (I do as well), they are “gulls”, part of the Laridae family.

Language and Communication

• Each seagull family has its own unique call that allows them to identify each other in a colony.

• Gull vocalizations and behaviors were the focus of Nikolaas Tinbergen’s work. He was a pioneer in animal behavior research and won a Nobel Prize for the study of social organization in animals. In his 1954 monograph “The Herring Gull’s World”, he wrote that at first a gull colony seems to be utter chaos. However, “it soon becomes evident…that it must be an intricate social structure, organized according to some sort of a plan. The individuals are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”

Tinbergen observed that Herring Gulls also learn which individuals are worth paying attention to. He noted that they ignore alarm calls from individuals they know to be skittish, but freak out when a trusted neighbor utters a sound.

Food & Feeding

• Seagulls’ intelligence is clearly demonstrated by a range of different feeding behaviors, such as dropping hard-shelled mollusks onto rocks so that they break open and can be eaten.

• They learn, remember and even pass on behaviors, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.

• They also stamp their feet in shallow water to stir up food. I’ve seen them do this often in the tide pools at Good Harbor beach, and it’s so cute, like they’re doing a little seagull merengue. 😀

• There have even been instances where seagulls have been observed using bread to bait fish!

Learning from us! Researchers from the University of Sussex found that gulls seem to make certain food choices based on what we eat! The researchers placed one blue and one green bag of chips near both individuals and groups of herring gulls along Brighton’s seafront. Nearby, a human experimenter ate from either a blue or green bag of chips. The researchers found that the gulls would turn their heads to watch the experimenter and, in most cases, then pecked at the matching bag of chips to attempt to find food. Paul Graham, Professor of Neuroethology at the University ofSussex says: “While we know that animals learn from each other, we rarely see animals learning from a totally different species when it comes to food preferences. Gulls didn’t evolve to like chips. Over time they have had to learn to engage with humans in order to source food. It is therefore a sign of intelligence.”

Parenting & Young Gulls

• Seagulls are attentive and caring parents. The male and female pair for life and they take turns incubating the eggs, and feeding and protecting the chicks.

Choosing a nesting site: Gulls communicate with their mates during the summer breeding season using a choking display to pick a spot for the nest. Although two patches of ground may look exactly the same to us, gulls spend a lot of time discussing the spot where the eggs will be laid. Choking displays involve a repetitive, delicate murmur given by one member of the pair who thinks it has found the ideal spot for the nest. The bird leans forward and points at the spot on the ground while uttering the huoh-huoh-huoh choke call. Its partner usually walks in a circle around the spot while considering it, and only joins in the choke display if she agrees. It’s an important decision, and one that is not always made. Researchers observed one pair of Great Black-backed Gulls in Maine that spent the entire summer placing sticks in different areas of their territory and choking, but never reached a final agreement.

• Young gulls form nursery flocks where they will play and learn vital skills for adulthood. Nursery flocks are watched over by a few adult males and these flocks will remain together until the birds are old enough to breed.

• It takes time for a gull to grow up. All gulls require more than one year to reach maturity, and you’ve probably seen gulls that were the size of adults but were a mottled brown. These are the “first or second winter” gulls, the ones that hatched within the past year or two. Smaller gull species may only need two years to get their adult plumage, whereas the larger species need up to four years. Over the years they lose their brown feathers, and they are replaced with white, black and gray ones. In some, the leg color changes too.

Miscellaneous Interesting Facts & Traits

• Seagulls can drink both fresh and salt water. Most animals are unable to do this, but gulls have a special pair of glands right above their eyes which are specifically designed to flush the salt from their systems through openings in the bill.

• Many seagulls have learned to conserve energy by hovering over bridges in order to absorb raising heat from paved roadways.

The ground effect: Seagulls often fly just above the surface of calm water to take advantage of the “ground effect”. Prof. Bob Thomas of Loyola University explains it this way: “as the bird glides over the water the air is “funneled” between the lower surfaces of the wings and the upper surface of the water. The air is thereby compressed and functions like a cushion of dense air that supports the bird aloft, in addition to the normal aerodynamic forces at work. As the bird nears the water surface, the ground effect becomes stronger… This aerodynamic phenomenon is very important to aerial wildlife, and it has been copied by humans. During World War II, long-range bombers often flew close to the water’s surface to conserve fuel. Inexperienced pilots coming in for a landing are often surprised as they gradually drop down as expected, then get within half a wingspan to the ground and are suddenly buoyed upward by the ground effect. It even happens in commercial aircraft. Pay close attention when you are on a landing plane and you may feel an unexpected buoyant sensation just before touchdown.”

• Seagulls usually sleep in open spaces where they have a good view of their surroundings, often in a group with other gulls. They are known to sleep both on land and water. On land, they often choose rooftops and other high up places. When sleeping at sea, they float.

• When gulls are “just standing around”, they always face the wind. They land and take off into the wind, so by standing this way, they can make a quicker escape if needed.

Why do gulls stand on one leg? It usually has to do with regulating body temperature. Unfeathered legs can lose precious body heat through the exposed skin. Keeping one leg tucked under body feathers while standing on the other helps the bird to keep warm. Or if you see both legs, they could be stretching. 🙂

• There are about 50 species of gulls, and which one is most common depends on where you are in the world. Here on Cape Ann, MA, it’s definitely Herring gulls.

• Many look quite similar and identifying them can be tricky, especially since the plumage changes in their first 1-4 years, and in adults, can change depending on the season. The Herring gull in the image above is a non-breeding adult, and you can tell that from the brown pattern on the head and neck. If it was a breeding adult, the head and neck would be pure white.

• The Galapagos Lava Gull is thought to be the rarest gull in the world, found only in the Galapagos with a total population of 300-600 individuals.

• The black-bill is the only gull in the world classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

• The world’s smallest gull is the cute Little Gull at 9.4 to 11.0 inches and 3.5-5.3 oz.

• The world’s largest gull is the Great Black-backed gull at 27.9-31.1 inches and 45.9-70.5 oz.

A couple of my own memorable seagull moments

In addition to Herring gulls, we see a lot of Great and Lesser Black-backed gulls up here on Cape Ann, they are big and bossy and come across as a bit mean towards the other birds (but are jumpier around us humans than the Herring gulls, interestingly).

The frustrated gull: I was down in the harbor in Rockport (MA) one afternoon when a fisherman had just finished cleaning out a bunch of plastic crates and stacked them on a dock. There must have been a small piece of fish or something left in one of the bottom crates, because there was a lesser black-backed gull that desperately tried to get into it. I stood and watched him for quite some time, it was fascinating how human-like his behavior was. He walked all around the crates, trying to pull at them with his beak.

He jumped into the top one and tried to get through the bottom of it. Nothing worked, and after a while, he clearly got very irritated and started pulling on random ropes on the dock.

When that didn’t do anything, he went over to the edge of the dock and stood there for a while, looking out over the water, just like I might do if I tried to come up with the solution to a problem.

He then went back and gave it a final try, and when that didn’t work, he got really angry and started lashing out at all the other gulls that had gathered and were hanging around watching along with me.

He flapped his wings and ran around the dock, chasing all the other gulls away, (except for a young one that was hiding behind me, he didn’t dare to get to that one) before flying off himself. It was fascinating to watch the entire thing, and how you could clearly see what was going on in his mind.

Rescuing Måselina / Måsart: My husband (Bill) and I were walking through the middle of Stockholm (Sweden) on a summer day when we noticed a tiny, fluffy seagull chick making little calls and running all over the place, in and out of traffic. We were worried that it would get run over by a car but didn’t know what to do. Luckily this was after the invention of cell phones, so while Bill kept an eye on the bird, I managed to get a wildlife expert on the phone. He said it had most likely fallen out of the nest, and if we looked up, we’d probably see the parents circling and keeping an eye on it. We did see them, but the area still wasn’t safe for the little one with all that traffic. The wildlife guy asked if there was a park close by (there was, we were close to Kungsträdgården), and said to carefully pick the chick up and move it over to the park, while keeping an eye on the parents to make sure that they saw where it went. Maybe also put it down on the ground again when we were halfway there so the parents would see it. Bill picked it up, and it immediately went completely still and quiet. We made sure the parents were circling above us and started making our way towards the park. We did put it back on the ground once like the guy said, and it immediately started making calls again. Once we were sure the parents were above, Bill picked it back up, it went quiet, and we took it over to the park, where it quickly ran into the bushes. We left it there and don’t know what happened after that, but hopefully it all ended well. Seagull is called mås in Swedish, and we called the chick Måselina (if it was a girl) or Måsart (if it was a boy, pronounced like Mozart). We still call the area where we found him/her Måselina Square. 🙂

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