Gulls are very familiar birds with different species found in a range of habitats worldwide, but how much do you really know about them? These facts about gulls can surprise even experienced birders!
- All gulls belong to the Laridae bird family, along with terns, kittiwakes, skimmers, and noddies. There are approximately 50 species of gulls found throughout the world, depending on how different species classifications are split or lumped.
- At least one gull species is found on every continent, including Antarctica, and many gulls have widespread ranges that make them familiar to birders from vastly different regions. This makes gulls one of the most widespread families of birds in the world.
- Despite the universal use of the general term "seagull" these birds are not associated just with pelagic, marine, or coastal environments, and in fact, there are no birds officially named seagulls. Many gulls thrive in inland habitats, and they are often found in wetlands, agricultural fields, parking lots, or even in urban and suburban areas hundreds or thousands of miles from the coast. Gulls are not usually found in the densest jungles, steepest mountains, or most barren deserts, however.
- Gulls are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods, including fish, insects, carrion, eggs, trash, mollusks, and more. They are opportunistic feeders and will try just about any type of food, even raiding picnic areas and landfills for scraps.
- These birds can drink either freshwater or saltwater, though they prefer freshwater. A special salt gland above their eyes helps regulate the ion and electrolyte balance in their blood, and excess salt is excreted through the nares. Many other seabirds, including albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters, also have this gland and can drink salt water.
- These are gregarious birds that typically live in large colonies with hundreds or thousands of individual gulls grouped together, particularly in areas with rich food sources or appropriate nesting habitat. A flock of gulls is called a colony, squabble, flotilla, or scavenging.
- Gulls are intelligent, curious birds that may play games, steal prey from other birds, harass other animals, and even take advantage of humans by stealing from picnic areas. These are adaptable birds that can adjust to different circumstances, always working to turn the tide in their favor.
- Most gulls have countershaded plumage that is gray or blackish above and white below. Gray, white, and black are their primary colors, though legs, feet, and bills can range from gray, yellow, or pink to bright red, orange, or black. Some gulls are more distinct, however, such as the mostly white ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) or the mostly dark gray lava gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus). Juvenile gulls take several years to reach their adult appearance, and they pass through several subadult colorations as they mature.
- The California gull (Larus californicus) has the honor of being the state bird of Utah. Not only is this the only gull to be an officially designated state bird, but it is also the only bird to be a symbolic icon for one state even though it is named after another state.
- Gulls are generally monogamous and most mate for life. They vigorously safeguard their offspring, even becoming aggressive in their nesting areas if their chicks are threatened. While gulls do divorce if a pair is unable to produce healthy chicks, many gull colonies appear to have a divorce stigma. A previously mated bird could be seen as less desirable for several nesting seasons after splitting from a partner.
- Gulls typically use a basic scrape nest or a shallow platform built with weeds, twigs, or other debris. The eggs are often heavily camouflaged to blend in with pebbles or sand, and 1 to 3 eggs are typical for most gull broods. These birds nest on beaches, cliffs, roofs, and similar places, and they often return to the same nesting site for many years.
- Gulls all have a distinct jizz, but their sizes vary widely. The little gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus) is the smallest at just 11 to 12 inches long, a wingspan of 24 inches, and weighing just 3 to 5 ounces. The great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) is the largest gull at 28 to 30 inches long with a 60-inch wingspan and a weight of 3 to 4 pounds.
- In many cultures, gulls are symbolic of freedom, versatility, and a carefree lifestyle. In Irish and Celtic mythology, Manannan Mac Lir was a trickster and god of the sea often portrayed as a gull. Gulls may be seen as spiritual messengers and are often associated with the ability to see different viewpoints.
- While juvenile mortality is high, gulls that mature often have an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years. Some gulls have had extraordinarily long lives, with records for different banded birds such as a western gull that lived 33 years, a herring gull that lived 29 years, a ring-billed gull that lived 27 years, and a laughing gull that lived 22 years.
- Gulls face many threats common to seabirds, such as risks from oil pollution, fishing line and net tangles, and plastic ingestion. One-legged gulls are not an uncommon sight, and while these birds are adaptable to this type of injury, conscientious birders and all gull-lovers should take steps to protect these unique and fascinating birds.