Wilderness Underfoot: Soaring over seas of concrete

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115758064829903.jpg’, ”, ‘Our two most common gulls – The ring-billed gull, Larus delawarensis (above), has a dark ring around the front of its bill–which helps distinguish it from the very similar herring gull, Larus argentatus (below). Both birds have yellow-orange feet and yellowish eyes. During winter months, brown specks and streaks pepper their heads.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115758065429903.jpg’, ”, ”);

Although we associate these graceful gliders with rivers, lakes and seashores, gulls are showing up over dry urban areas

The two most widespread gulls in North America have figured out how to flourish by taking advantage of human alterations to the natural habitat. The ring-billed gull and the herring gull have learned to search for worms and insects behind farm equipment. They pick at road kill on our highways, scavenge for refuse around parking lots and dumpsters, and feed in garbage dumps. They can now be found far from rivers, lakes and seashores that once sustained them.

Some people dislike this “invasion” of gulls, notwithstanding that our own activities have drawn these birds out of their normal habitats. Large flocks of gulls in urban areas can be loud and messy. And they’re more inclined than most other birds to lurk intrusively close to loud machinery and crowds of people if food is to be found.

Still, it’s hard not to appreciate gulls. Their silky white, gray and black feathers are quite attractive, and their skillful antics in the air seem to defy the laws of gravity. Gulls have the perfect wings for gliding—long and sharply pointed at the ends. Toss a treat into the air, and a gull hangs above you as if it is suspended on invisible wires, waiting for more.

These are big, hungry birds. The ring-billed gull takes three years to gain its adult plumage, while the herring gull takes four. Juveniles of these two species are hard to tell apart, while an adult can be distinguished by whether a black ring is present on the end of its bill.

Other kinds of gulls are somewhat rare here, although they’re such capable fliers it isn’t unheard of for gulls from distant lands to arrive in our region. Sometimes they’ll even take up residence here. The laughing gull, Franklin’s gull and Bonaparte’s gull—all three birds distinguishable by black heads and smaller bodies—have been sighted in Illinois. Another visitor, Thayer’s gull, looks similar to the herring gull from which its species recently split off, but it can be told apart by its brown eyes. And the occasional glaucous gull is much lighter in color than other North American gulls.

From the Sept. 6-12, 2006, issue

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