“Herring Gulls, Pirates or Loafers?”

Adult Herring Gulls are quite common on our coast, and they make themselves comfortable everywhere they choose to be; patrolling shorelines, hanging out in parking lots, the marsh, fish processing plants, docks, rooftops, picnic areas, newly plowed acreage, athletic fields, following whales and dolphins at sea (hoping to snatch small prey driven to the water’s surface), hovering above fishing boats, landfills and even airport runways. However, we hardly ever if never see their babies because they generally nest off shore in areas known to be human and predator free! So, it was quite the surprise when a boater on vacation showed up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport recently carrying an infant Herring Gull. During the boater’s day on the water, he hauled onto an island’s shore to explore and came across a nest in the sand occupied by the little HGull and unfortunately, two deceased siblings. His boating party decided to stay away from the nest and observe for a while to see if Herring parents were still tending to it. One of the party knew that with seabirds one parent is always at the nest until the chicks are at least a month old. So, after a few hours of waiting, watching and seeing no adults return to the nest, the decision was made to take the chick and find a wildlife rehabilitator to ensure the infant’s best chance at survival. It is believed that due to the intact condition of the two infants that passed, no predators were involved and possibly something had happened to the Herring Gull parents. Our report on the admitted baby Herring Gull is extremely favorable, for he is doing very well. He is comfy in his warm brooder, eating mud minnows on his own and going for swims in his makeshift ocean (the laundry room sink). Herring Gulls, one of the most familiar of gulls, are often referred to as “Seagulls,” when in fact, every gull species carries its own name and identification. As an infant, the chick is a gray-tan and spotted brown, fluff ball with a white tipped black beak and tan legs. Young Herrings take four years to reach full adult plumage and go through several plumage stages that vary in appearance. That is why Herring Gulls are misidentified so often. They tend to look like different gulls rather than one in the same due to their lengthy physical maturity process. First-winter birds are gray-brown with a dark tail, a brown rump with dark bars, dark outer primaries and pale inner primaries, dark eyes, and a dark bill, which usually develops a paler base through the winter. The head is often lighter in color than the body. Second-winter birds typically have pale eyes, lighter bill with black tip, pale head and begin to show gray feathers on the back. Third-winter birds are closer to adults but still have some black on the bill and brown on the body and wings and have a black band on the tail, until they finally become the statuesque, white with gray and black wings and heavily built large gull they are meant to be. They are over two feet in length and weigh between 2 to 3.6 pounds, depending on whether they are male or female. Males run heavier. Herring Gulls are larger than Ringed-billed and Laughing Gulls, but not as big as the Great Black-backed Gull. The Herring Gull’s wingspan is 47 to 61 inches. Their physically mature head and chest are white, back is gray with black wing tips adorned with white dots called mirrors. Their legs are pink, sturdy and sport webbed feet, making them equally adept at swimming, walking on land and flying. Their yellowish bills have a red spot on the lower mandible, and that red spot plays an important role when feeding young. The chick will tap on the spot with its bill to let the parent know it’s hungry. This is an innate “fixed action pattern,” so, baby Herring Gulls will peck at any red dot! The eyes of a mature Herring Gull are bright to medium yellow, with a yellow or orange ring around each eye, and those eyes can scope out the tiniest morsel of food from quite a distance. A Herring Gull can be quite loud with a variety of cries and calls that are very high pitched. They are communicators who talk to each other during courtship, to emit warnings, while assigning territory and who also seem to be making noise just for the sake of making noise, but what do WE know since we don’t speak the language?!? Adult Herring Gulls will eat just about anything (and that might also be what they’re squawking about). They are scavenging, opportunistic feeders and effective, lethal hunters.  Because their habitat is always close to water sources, marine invertebrates such as mussels, crabs, urchins, clams, squid, crayfish, as well as fish and discarded fish offal are definitely on the menu, but let’s not leave out insects, berries, worms, other birds’ eggs or chicks, cottontails, carrion and human litter or garbage. They are as smart as a Crow, using tools to hunt such as spreading bread crumbs on the water to lure fish and dropping shellfish on rocks to break them open. They are also very aggressive and will pirate food from another bird’s take or catch! To wash it all down, they prefer fresh water, but will drink seawater if they must. The special glands above their eyes excrete excess salt from seawater that would dangerously dehydrate any other animals, including humans. Considerable time between feedings is spent bathing, preening and “loafing.” Loafing is a term animal behaviorists use to describe a bird that isn’t doing much of anything, and most seabirds spend many long hours loafing. Pairing, that remains monogamous, occurs during April and May, and both male and female are involved in nest construction. They nest in 10 to 15” wide depressions, with smaller depressions within the nest to hold each egg in place, on secluded shores, or they may choose to wedge nests into rocky crevices on isolated islands. The nest is lined with vegetation, feathers, litter and usually hidden from predators and protected from high winds behind a large rock, log or bush. One to three brown speckled buff or greenish eggs are laid and incubated for approximately 32 days. Herring Gulls lay heavy, large eggs and have the highest hatching success of all gulls. Youngsters are born eyes open, fluffy with brown spots and able to move about the nesting area within a few hours. They fledge at 6-7 weeks but continue to be fed by their parents until they are six months old. An interesting factoid regarding young Herring Gulls is that they are known to pant like a dog to cool off, especially if their parents have nested in direct sun, because their mouth lining is their best means of shedding heat. The longest living Herring Gull claims the record of 32 years of age. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, have stepped into the parent role for our little Herring Gull and will help him grow, get stronger and become capable. When he is tall, mottled gray-brown, hunting and flying he will join his place as one of many in a flock of North Carolina Herring Gulls to enjoy many “bird-days,” and hopefully, break the current longevity record!

Best Always and hope you are having a Spectacular Summer!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All