Latest For the Birds column: Gulls and ants?


A Herring Gull positions a clam for eating in Stratford, Conn.

A Herring Gull positions a clam for eating in Stratford, Conn.

Here’s the latest For the Birds column, which runs weekly in The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.), The Keene (NH) Sentinel and several Connecticut weekly newspapers.

We’ve all seen gulls eat clams at the beach. They rise into the air, clam in bill, and drop the mollusk onto the pavement.

If the shell doesn’t break, the gull goes a little higher the next time and drops the clam again. Eventually they get just the right altitude and the shell breaks to expose the good stuff inside. If they go too high the shell will shatter into a million pieces and splatter the meat into an inedible mess.

If the gull is lucky, it will get to eat the clam waiting for it on the pavement. If they aren’t lucky, a marauding gull will have come by and stolen the clam before the industrious gull could even make its way back down to the pavement.

But that’s just part of the gull’s varied diet. We’ve also all seen gulls eating fries, potato chips and other human junk food at the beach or in a parking lot.

But did you know gulls eat insects, too? Even insects as small as ants make up part of a gull’s diet. How can an ant satisfy the appetite of a large bird like a gull? An ant can’t, of course, but lots of ants can. Humans don’t open a container of peanuts and eat one nut. We eat them by the handful.

So where do gulls find these ants? The answer is not as obvious as it seems. Sure they find them on the ground, but that’s not all. Take the following story for example:

I received a call from John, an East Norwalk, Conn., resident, the other day. John calls on occasion and lets me know what out-of-the-ordinary birds are showing up in his backyard. But this time he had a different reason for the call.

He said he looked up and “the sky was filled with seagulls.” The large birds appeared to be catching something in midair, he continued. He thought it must be some kind of insect, but he had never seen anything like that before.

“It was just bizarre,” John said. “A flock of chimney swifts or swallows, I get that. I’ve never seen gulls doing that before, though.”

John’s call reminded me of a recent posting on the American Birding Association’s Connecticut birding list web page. The site is mostly for rare bird alerts, but it also includes several interesting discussions about birds.

In late September someone made a post about “50-100 gulls flying in all directions” in the sky. “It sure looked like some of them were grabbing insects,” the post read. Several responses to the post followed from writers saying they had seen a similar spectacle.

One response seems to have hit the nail on the head. “Even gulls ‘flycatch.’ Every time that I have seen them doing this, it has been to feed on flying ants,” wrote Glenn from Mystic, Conn.

Hatches of flying ants create an excellent source of food for many birds. You would expect the flycatchers and other smaller birds to gorge themselves on these massive hatches, but gulls?

A herring gull weighs somewhere around three pounds. An ant weighs a few milligrams. That’s a lot of “fly catching” for a big bird to do for such a small reward. But it must be worth the effort or else the birds wouldn’t be doing it.

Ants may not be everybody’s favorite creature, but they provide an invaluable source of food for countless birds. Northern flickers are the only woodpecker species that can regularly be seen on the ground. They are on the ground so often because they are — all together now — eating ants.

Gulls join the ant party, too. Sometimes, according to several sources, they party too much on ants and become “drunk” or “trippy” because of the formic acid in ants. Most of those reports come from the UK, but I have no reason doubt it. I’ve seen cedar waxwings “drunk” on fermented crab apples, so why can’t a gull trip from eating flying ants?

So keep your eyes to the sky. You never know what you’ll see going on up there.

1 thought on “Latest For the Birds column: Gulls and ants?

  1. Hi Chris — This is such an interesting post — well done!
    As usual, it led me to thinking about summers in New Hampshire, watching large groups of big black (dark anyhow) dragonflies swooping over the lawn & bushes after a hatch of winged smaller insects. In my memory this always happened in the late afternoon — perhaps because that was when we’d be around to watch.
    Best Susan


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