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Spiraling above a fishing boat or squabbling at a dock or parking lot, Herring Gulls are the quintessential gray-and-white, pink-legged “seagulls.” They’re the most familiar gulls of the North Atlantic and can be found across much of coastal North America in winter. A variety of plumages worn in their first four years can make identification tricky—so begin by learning to recognize their beefy size and shape.
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- Herring Gulls are one of the most familiar gulls of the East Coast and many people just call them “seagulls.” In fact, some two dozen different species of gulls live in North America, and they present almost endless opportunities for identification.
- Herring Gulls prefer drinking freshwater, but they’ll drink seawater when they must. Special glands located over the eyes allow them to excrete the salt that would otherwise dehydrate most animals, including us. The salty excretion can be seen dripping out of their nostrils and off the ends of their bills.
- The Herring Gull has extended its breeding range southward along the Atlantic Coast, and may be displacing the more southern Laughing Gull from some areas. At the northern end of its range, however, the Herring Gull is itself being displaced by increasing numbers of the Great Black-backed Gull.
- Young Herring Gulls appear to be more migratory than adults. In some areas, such as the Great Lakes, most adults remain near their breeding grounds, but the nonbreeders move father south in the fall.
- Breeding brings special dietary challenges for Herring Gulls. During courtship, males feed their mates, losing fat reserves in the process. Then egg-laying reduces the females’ protein and bone calcium, and they seek out marine invertebrates and fish to replenish stores. After chicks hatch, both parents feed them day and night for up to 12 weeks, splitting foraging shifts to offer each chick up to half a pound of food per day as it nears fledging.
- Sibling rivalry is a problem in the bird world, too. The third chick in a Herring Gull clutch can have it especially tough. While the first two chicks hatch the same day, the third is born a day or two later, weighs less, gets less food, and grows more slowly.
- Incubating Herring Gulls often pant to cool off. They orient their bodies to keep darker plumage out of direct sun as best they can, but short of dipping their feet and legs into water, their mouth lining is their best means of shedding heat.
- An adult Herring Gull was spotted bait-fishing. It floated bits of bread on the surface of a Paris pond and attacked goldfish feeding on the bread. It ate none of the bread itself, indicating deliberate tool use.
- The oldest recorded Herring Gull was at least 29 years, 3 months old when it was seen in the wild in Michigan in 2015 and identified by its band. It had been banded in Wisconsin in 1986.
Habitat: Herring Gulls’ scavenging habits take them to open water, intertidal pools and shallows, mud flats, landfills, newly plowed fields, picnic grounds, and fish-processing plants. They roost and loaf, often in large mixed species groups, in open areas with good visibility for spotting predators, including agricultural and athletic fields, beaches, parking lots, airport runways, and garbage dumps. They breed near lakes in northern forests across Canada to Alaska and in some coastal areas. Colonies often form on isolated islands, barrier beaches, and marshy hummocks, which are safe from terrestrial predators (though aerial predators can still be a danger). City rooftops, for example, serve the same purpose.
Food: Herring Gulls prey on marine invertebrates, fish, insects, smaller seabirds, and even on adults, young, and eggs of other gulls. Along rocky shores, they take mussels, crabs, sea urchins, and crayfish. On mudflats, they seek worms, small clams, and mussels. In open water, they follow large predators (including fishing boats) that bring small fish, squid, and zooplankton to the surface. Newly plowed fields provide ready supplies of earthworms and other invertebrate prey. Herring Gulls are opportunistic scavengers on fish, carrion, and trash. Individual gulls often specialize on a food type. Most choose marine invertebrates like crabs, sea urchins, or clams, even though fresh-caught fish make their most calorie-, protein-, and fat-rich meals by far. In spite of this apparently poor choice, these gulls have the largest, heaviest eggs and the highest hatching success rates. The opportunism of gulls extends to raiding nests of other seabirds, and one or two males per large breeding colony may even specialize in cannibalizing chicks of others in the colony.
Nesting: Several days before egg-laying, pairs hollow out up to four depressions 10–15 inches across with central depressions 4–8 inches wide and about the depth of an egg. They line the scrapes with vegetation, feathers, plastic, rope, or other materials. The pair chooses the final nest from these alternates. After the female lays her eggs, the pair continues to add vegetation to this nest throughout the monthlong incubation. Sand nests are sometimes left unlined or only sparsely lined.
Nest Placement: Herring Gull pairs pick nesting sites together in the soft soil, sand, or short vegetation of their territory. To protect the nest from prevailing winds and hide it from predators, it is usually placed next to a rock, log, or bush. This also hides it from the nearest neighbors. Crevices may be used as nest sites in rocky areas.
Behavior: Herring Gulls patrol shorelines and open ocean in widely scattered groups, soaring raptor-like and spiraling down to pick scraps off the surface. Individuals plunge-dive from near the surface and dip while paddling to take shallow prey. Rallying around fishing boats or refuse dumps, they are raucous and competitive, threatening and stealing from other birds. They’ll prowl tide flats seeking out invertebrates, gobbling small items whole, picking apart larger prey, and dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open. Tighter groups follow foraging whales, groups of dolphins, or schools of large fish in open water, hovering to nab small prey driven to the surface. Their opportunistic scavenging punctuates hours of bathing, preening, and “loafing” near food sources. (“Loafing” is a term behaviorists use to describe a bird that isn’t doing much of anything; many seabirds spend long hours this way.) Males establish breeding territories and both members of a bonded pair defend it with threatening postures, warning calls, and chase-attacks in air and on ground. Courtship rituals include mate-feeding, and pairs remain bonded as long as both live. They return to the same territories each breeding season and share the work through a month of incubation and three months of chick-raising. One parent is always at the nest until the chicks are at least a month old.
Conservation: Herring Gull populations declined by over 3.5% per year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 83%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of over 246,000 breeding birds and lists it as a Species of Low Concern. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Herring Gull is not on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List, but the 2014 State of the Birds Report listed it as a Common Bird in Steep Decline. Human activities are the main threats to local populations. For example, Atlantic Coast populations were nearly wiped out in the late 1880s by hunters seeking feathers and eggs. But by the 1980s, their numbers had increased tenfold to more than 100,000 pairs. Conservation movements ended exploitation in many areas, though numbers had shrunk so far that hunting became unprofitable anyway. Other changes inadvertently aided recovering populations. Increasing numbers of coastal fishing boats in the 1930s dumped “garbage fish” and waste, providing a rich new food source. The growing number of onshore refuse dumps also attracted gulls but probably had mixed effects, since chicks fed human refuse show poorer survival rates. Whaling, the destruction of dolphin and porpoise populations, and intensive fishing of larger fish like cod and salmon decreased competition for the smaller fish that gulls favor. More recently, however, continued overfishing has made even these smaller fish less numerous. And changing fishing practices have meant less waste from fishing boats. Oil pollution, pesticide contamination, and deliberate control measures have threatened some Herring Gull populations.