In today’s post, Awenda Park Chief Naturalist Tim Tully defends what some may think is indefensible: the seagull.
If ever there was an animal that gets a raw deal, it’s the seagull.
It’s time to set the record straight and come to the defense of this unjustly maligned bird.
For starters, we can’t even get the name right. I hate to break it to you, friends, but seagulls don’t exist!
Go away, seagull!
My perennial argument is this: “There is no sea in south-central Ontario, therefore there can be no seagulls!” They are seagulls.
The seagull is forced to endure further insults when the false common name is blindly used as a general term for all seagull species, unceremoniously dumped into a generic picnic basket.
If you look closer, you can see a spectacular diversity of species in Ontario. Twenty-one of the 54 species of seagulls in the world have been documented in the province.
Ontario’s provincial parks, particularly those located around the Great Lakes, are a natural refuge for these misunderstood shorebirds.
Some seagulls have descriptive names that reflect a defining characteristic.
Our most common species in Ontario, the ring-billed gull, has a prominent black ring surrounding its yellow bill.
Other species have colorful historical connections.
Bonaparte’s gull is named after Napoleon’s cousin, French biologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte, who first collected a specimen in Philadelphia in 1815.
Franklin’s gull is named after the famous Arctic explorer, Captain John Franklin, whose expedition to the Canadian Arctic first collected and identified the species in 1823. Sir John knew gulls were cool, get it?
Birds of a feather
Seagulls share some common characteristics.
They have long wings and webbed feet, slightly hooked bills, and square or rounded tails. Ontario species range in size from the small 11-inch pygmy gull to the relative giant, the 30-inch greater black-backed gull.
Admittedly, it can be difficult to distinguish gulls from each other due to their subtle combination of grey, white and black plumage. Even the finicky bird-watching community rarely gives seagulls their due.
It takes patience and skill to identify subtle differences between species and age classes.
Seagulls are like a mirror…
Fortunately for most of us, we encounter seagulls almost every day. They are opportunistic scavengers. Seagulls eat plant and animal matter and are known to eat carrion.
They often intimidate a smaller shorebird with a brazen act of aerial piracy to steal a free meal. No landfill or fast food parking lot scene is complete without a seagull to accompany it. Here may lie the root of our collective prejudice.
We make fun of seagulls by calling them trash birds, dung hawks (I’m being polite), fried bandits, or sky rats.
But here’s the thing: how can we blame seagulls when we, as humans, are the root cause of their overabundance?
Seagulls take advantage of any available food source. The massive waste from garbage dumps is practically a seagull smorgasbord. Gulls are one of the few generalist species that have thrived alongside explosive human growth.
It’s hard to blame seagulls for filling the valuable scavenger niche and cleaning up our mess at the same time.
In parks, this problem manifests itself on our beaches and coasts.
People attract seagulls by leaving trash for them or, worse, actively feeding them to attract more of them. The park’s next visitor inherits a bigger problem: the seagulls return expecting handouts.
In the worst case scenario, a beachgoer picks up a nearby rock and throws it to scare away an unsuspecting bird.
It is illegal to harass or harm wildlife in provincial parks. Feeding wildlife, including seagulls, for our pleasure and amusement is harassment.
It prevents birds from following their natural patterns and at the same time introduces unhealthy elements into their diet.
Seagulls have many virtues. They are the undisputed masters of the air. They ride updrafts like no other birds, floating effortlessly by exploiting the subtle differences in air pressure between the water’s surface and the breaking waves.
Its intricate weaving and waving is often maneuvered without a single flap of its wings. Even recently, seagulls have been credited with altering their flight path to take advantage of small updrafts rising from rows of low buildings.
Accentuate the positive of the seagull!
So here’s a challenge. The next time you encounter seagulls on a park beach, sit for a moment and marvel at their intricate yet simple flight pattern.
Maybe it’s time to reword the seagull’s job description to read Honorary Sanitary Engineer and thank the extended family of seagulls for their cleanup efforts.
An additional step would be to return the favor and clean up any loose fishing line or plastic bottle rings that could entangle or injure these vulnerable birds.
Seagulls should be in the air where they can be admired, not limping on a beach with a broken limb.
Do not feed wildlife and let the seagulls eat raw. And remember, it’s a seagull by any other name!