Monday, June 21, 2010

Apple #464: Seagulls

The other day, I was walking along a lakeshore, nobody in sight in either direction for miles. I looked up and flying just above me was a single seagull.  It was flying at about the same rate as I was walking for a while, and it seemed like a friend.  Then it saw something in the water and it veered off and ahead of me.

It occurred to me, we see seagulls all over the place, all the time.  We really take them for granted and are even annoyed but them.  But are there things about them that most of us don't know, that are cool and unusual?


No, not these guys.
(Photo of A Flock of Seagulls from Kampvuur)


These guys.
(Photo of a real flock of seagulls in Galveston, TX from ElaKiri.com)

  • Seagulls can drink salt water.  They prefer fresh water, but they can drink it salty.  They are one of the few land creatures that can do this.  They have a special gland just above their eyes that separates and excretes the salt so they don't have to digest it.  You know a seagull has been drinking saltwater if you see whitish fluid dripping out of its nostrils on the beak, or off the end of its bill.
  • "Seagulls" is a term people use that actually refers to several species of gulls -- about 47 of them.  The most commonly seen of these species in North America is the Herring Gull.
  • Herring gulls breed in the summer as far north as northern Canada.  In the winter, they fly south to the warmer states along the Gulf or to the Pacific coast.  Many other species of gulls migrate, but not all of them do.

Herring gull
(Photo by Eva and Herman)

  • The California seagull is the official bird of the state of Utah.
  • This is probably because of a story about seagulls and the Mormons. When the Mormons first got to Utah, the crickets were eating all the crops they'd planted. Then a bunch of gulls showed up from the Great Salt Lake and ate the crickets, which saved the Mormons' crops and the Mormons themselves. A statue of a golden seagull stands in Salt Lake City, in thanks to the seagulls.
  • Seagulls eat all types of food. They'll scavenge people-food, but they also catch fish and other water creatures. Sometimes they snag fish when they jump out of the water. 

Seagull in Seattle caught in mid-dive going after a fish.
(Photo from around the sound: seattle)

  • They also like to eat clams. They open the clam shell by dropping the clams onto a rocky or hard surface from high up in the air, allowing the impact to break open the shell for them.
  • Some groups of seagulls will stamp their feet on the ground to imitate raindrops, thus encouraging earthworms to surface, whereupon the gulls eat the worms.

The laughing gull is the only seagull that breeds in Florida.
(Photo from the Internet Bird Collection)

  • Seagulls make their nests far away from predators and people. Some species fly hundreds of miles from the nest to their hunting grounds and back again in a single day.
  • Both male and female gulls will sit on the eggs. For about 3 or 4 hours, one will sit on the eggs while the other one hunts, and then they switch.
  • If they're not on a nest, seagulls will sleep pretty much anywhere they feel safe and protected. If they have to sleep in the open, they'll usually find other gulls and all sleep in a group.  Sometimes, groups of gulls will float together on the ocean's surface and sleep in that group.
  • They form nests by scraping shallows in sand or dirt. Sometimes they'll line the nest with leaves or feathers or bits of plastic they pick up, or sometimes they don't line the nest with anything at all.
  • Baby seagulls won't leave the nest until they've learned to fly -- which happens sooner for gulls than for most other birds. But still. The fact that the young stay in nests which are carefully hidden away from humans is why most of us have never seen baby seagulls.
  • Most types of seagulls are born with dark brown feathers.  It takes three years for their plumage to change colors from nearly all brown to nearly all white with some darker streaks.

Juvenile herring gull. Most of its feathers are still brown.
(Photo from Planet Thanet)

  • Herring gulls were hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800s.  Since then, however, the species has revived to historic numbers and has even expanded its breeding grounds.


(Photo of seagull from Lucky to be Lucid)


Then of course there's the line from Harold & Maude:

Dreyfus once wrote from Devil's Island that he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls. . . . For me they will always be glorious birds. 
 
 (Screen shot from HughShows Top 5's)


P.S. Regular reader Jason wanted to know, is it true that if you feed rice to a seagull it will explode?
  • Answer: Nope.  
  • The story goes that birds can't pass gas, so if they eat rice, the ensuing un-passable gas will cause them to blow up. Depending on the story, sometimes the birds are seagulls, sometimes they're pigeons.  
  • But birds manage the whole gas problem by vomiting -- which is how they deliver food to their young.  So if they do eat rice -- and they probably won't, to begin with -- they'll just throw it up. 
  • Believing this rumor to be true, lots of people stopped throwing rice at weddings.  But flinging rice around won't harm the birds.  Rice on the pavement might make your Great Aunt Edna slip and wipe out and break her hip, though.  So it's probably still a good idea to opt for the bubbles or rose petals or whatever else you plant to use.
  • I don't think rice is especially gas-producing anyway. I mean, if I were going to make up this rumor, I'd make it beans or Brussels sprouts or something.
  • But there are many variants on this rumor that do involve other materials. Substances that are supposed to cause the blowing up have included
    • Alka-Seltzer
    • Aspirin
    • Mentos
    • Baking soda
    • Coca-Cola
    • Any other carbonated beverage
  • Animals supposed to be explodable using these items have included
    • Seagulls
    • Pigeons
    • Frogs
    • Toads
  • Sorry to disappoint you folks, but none of those rumors is true. 
  • There's a video online of a bunch of, um, young men feeding bread soaked with a carbonated beverage to seagulls and you see what are apparently seagulls "popping."  If you've seen the video, you've probably noticed that they manage to work in the name of the product several times, even reading information off the can, the video is quite edited so that you don't actually see what they're throwing to the birds, and one of the, um, young men points both his hands at the birds as they "pop" in the distance.  
  • This video of the seagulls blowing up, ladies and gentlemen, is faked. I'd even bet that it's the energy drink's attempt at advertising. So I will do my part to foil their plan and not say the name of their product or reward them with a link.

Coke and Mentos, however, is a completely different story.




Here's why that works (there's a brief commercial at the beginning, sorry)




Sources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Herring Gull
Steven P. Wickstrom, Information about North American Seagulls
Stumblerz, Fun Facts on Seagulls
Seegull, 10 Facts You Didn't Know About Seagulls
Ask the Exterminator, Seagulls
Snopes.com, Against the Grain
Bird Watcher's Digest, Bird-watching Myths 

4 comments:

  1. Maybe it's because I don't live near them, but I think gulls are cute! www.satisfiedsole.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Still trying to figure out why our usual compliment of summer beach gulls has declined dramatically this year. If they are herring gulls, sources say they would be here only in winter. Confused by so many different gulls.
    Thanks for your great blog.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Love the line from Harold and Maude re Seagulls being glorious birds as that they really are. I also hadn't known how well they protected their young by carefully hidden nests far away from human traffic. Spending a awhile on the dyke by the river watching Seagulls is always enjoyable. Found your blog really informative except wish you didn't have to include info of alternatives re some myths.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I Love to see the herring gulls who've been coming to eat from the roof of my shed for the last 15 yrs. I'vw fed various things. The favourite just now are soaked cat biscuits + the scraps from my fussy old cat's dish. The jug-ful is never there for long before an adult turns up to eat it. Towards the end of summer, they park their mottedy-brown 'whistling babies' up on neighbouring rooftops n come down to fill up with good stuff for the babies.. then go up n regurgitate lunch or dinner into the baby. They look as big as eagles close to. The magpie youngsters eat anything the gulls miss.Thank for all that info!!

    ReplyDelete

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