Gulls? Who would want to write a column about gulls? Or, perhaps more importantly, who would want to read a column about gulls?
Well, I think gulls deserve a little ink considering how easy they are to find and how many of them there are. Nary a visit to any body of water goes by when you don’t see gulls, whether you want to or not. Not many parking lot visits go gull-less either.
The other day I stood near a small lake and looked over the water. A pair of male ring-necked ducks were right smack in the middle of the pond and about a dozen hooded mergansers hunted at the far end. Three mute swans graced the east end, a brant swam aimlessly here and there, and a smattering of Canada geese could be seen at various spots on the pond.
All the while, white blotches dotted the surface of the water and flew slowly around the scene. I barely noticed the gulls, even though they were the most plentiful species. They are so common that they tend to become part of the landscape, like trees or rocks.
Among birders, there are as many opinions on gulls as there are choices for spotting scopes or binoculars: annoyance, fondness, indifference.
Whatever your feelings about gulls, there’s no doubt that they hold an important place in the bird world. A species that prolific and widespread is bound to have an impact, either positive or negative.
Directly and indirectly, the explosion of the gull population has had an adverse effect on the population of other seabirds. Gulls, of course, are opportunistic feeders. Basically, they’ll eat anything, just visit the local landfill or McDonald’s dumpster for proof of that. But their diet also includes the eggs and young of other birds, such as terns and other seabirds.
Gulls also need space to nest and raise their young. They compete with terns — many species of which are endangered or threatened — for breeding space and the gulls usually win out. Gulls have size and numbers on their side, especially greater black-backed gulls. They’re huge.
Efforts are being made up and down the coast to give the terns a fair chance. One such project took place on the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire.
Gulls do have their redeeming qualities. For one, they often make interesting photographic subjects, and they are usually quite cooperative.
Fishermen also appreciate gulls for at least one reason. When a gathering of gulls can be seen hovering over the water and dropping down for food, anglers know immediately where the fish are.
Gulls can also be quite inspiringly resourceful. I’m not talking about rummaging through garbage or mugging three-year-old children on the beach for potato chips. But it is interesting to watch them carry in their bills a closed clamshell into the air and drop the prey from a reasonable height onto a sidewalk or parking lot. Sometimes it takes three or four tries, but the clam eventually cracks open and the gulls have a well-earned meal.
I’m sure the clams disagree, but the ingenuity displayed by the gulls in this case is refreshing.
Gulls are also all-weather birds. Some migrate to warmer climates, but a lot will tough out even our most harsh winters. I remember canoeing on a bitter cold and windy day in northern New Hampshire. No moose, no loons, no herons, no fowl. Just a lone gull.
Some birdwatchers, mostly advanced ones, love gulls. They stare at a huge flock of ring-billed gulls and herring gulls in the hopes of finding a rarity among them. Identifying these rare gulls is not for the faint of heart. Rare bird alerts in New England often include these rare gulls.
So gulls do have their moments.
Some people find gulls repulsive at worst and annoying at best. Others love them and make special trips to see them and maybe even feed them. Others are somewhere in the middle.
I fall in the last category, I think. I appreciate their resourcefulness and understand why people like the challenge of finding rarities, but I usually don’t pay much attention when I see them.