The bold, beneficial and resourceful gull

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116966672623147.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Norma and Monica Hedeen, the writer’s daughter-in-law and grandaughter, feed bits of bread to friendly herring gulls on a beach in southern Alabama.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116966687721789.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116966689817991.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘On Temple Square in Salt Lake City, a golden statue atop a granite column commemorates the “Miracle of the Seagulls.” Mormon pioneer settlers in 1848 claim grasshoppers invaded their fields, devouring their crops until a flock of seagulls arrived and ate the locusts. The gulls saved the crops and the pioneers from starvation.‘);

To many, the name gull implies sea gull, and one has to go to the sea to see one. It is true that most of the 23 different species of gulls in North America prefer to set up housekeeping along the coasts of this country, but several range far inland and are frequently observed in the Rock River Valley. The checklist of birds at the Severson Dells Nature Center lists three gulls as having visited the Center, and the checklist of birds identified from Winnebago County lists six gulls. Observers at the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge Center in Wisconsin have reported three gull species as frequenting the Refuge. The herring and Bonaparte’s gulls are the ones we are most apt to see in this locale.

The gull is a master of the “ozone”; a symbol of the graceful perfection of aerodynamics. By riding the prevailing winds, gulls may travel great distances—even across the Atlantic if they can find a ship whose garbage will serve as a source of food during the crossing.

The gull’s long, narrow wings enable it to take advantage of any currents, and it can fly forward, hold almost motionless against the wind, drift backwards, bank and veer, glide in long, graceful curves, or dart downward like an eagle or osprey. Although there may be hundreds of gulls in the air at the same time, they appear to be autonomous individuals, intent on tending to their own business of securing food and staying out of the way of others. If given a choice, most gulls prefer fish as food, and they are not particular whether the fish is fresh or not. They will scour the surface of the water for live or dead fish but are reluctant to dive beneath the surface. They are useful as scavengers in this regard. Inland, they frequently congregate in large numbers around landfills to feed on garbage. In areas with rocky shores, gulls may be seen to be feeding on clams or oysters by taking the bivalves to a height of 40 to 60 feet and then dropping them on the hard surface. If the shells are smashed, they avidly devour the meat of the bivalve. If the shells are not broken on the first drop, the process will be repeated over and over until success is achieved.

An elderly, wharf habitué in Ocean City, Md. once told me a story about how he was once struck on the top of his bald head by a large clam dropped by a sea gull. He had to go to the emergency room of the hospital to have the 3-inch gash in his pate sutured. He felt sure a nearsighted gull had mistaken his bald head for a rock and targeted it for a drop.

As noted, the herring gull is the most common gull found in North America. This bird, when adult, has a white head, tail, and underpants. The wings and back are gray with the wingtips being black. The feet and legs are flesh-colored. Over the years, I have seen numerous herring gulls along the Rock River and at Pierce Lake. I once thought I observed a laughing gull at Pierce Lake. This bird is smaller than the herring gull, has a black head, and periodically emits a maniacal laughing sound.

In Salt Lake City, there is a tall granite column in Temple Square that is topped with a sphere upon which, as if alighting, are the gilded bronze figures of two sea gulls. When the Mormons first settled the area around the Great Salt Lake, they experienced difficulty growing crops, and on several occasions were faced with starvation. Then, one year, it appeared their crops would flourish, but before harvest, wave upon wave of grasshoppers (locusts) descended on the fields and started devouring the grains. But suddenly, as if sent from above, flocks of sea gulls appeared and finished off the insects, and the crops were saved. Franklin’s gull is the species probably responsible for saving the crops as it likes to range far inland, and grasshoppers are its favorite food. Understandably, the gull is the state bird of Utah.

At Salisbury University, a part of the University of Maryland system where I taught, the mascot of the school was the sea gull. A new reporter for the local paper took it upon himself to deride the sea gull and state it was a scavenger and inappropriate as a mascot for the university. Students, faculty, alumni and local citizens were so outraged that it was suggested the newcomer should be ridden out of town on a rail. The reporter did, in fact, leave town after a few months on the job. I just hope he did not end up working for a newspaper in Salt Lake City.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Jan. 24-30, 2007, issue

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