Birds of the Glebe, The Ring-billed Gull
The Ring-billed gull is playful, is a great parent and mates for life – what’s not to like? Photo: Jeanette Rive
The Ring-billed gull
By Jeanette Rive
What birds use breadcrumbs to attract fish? What birds stamp their feet to produce rain-like sounds to lure earthworms? What birds engage in play, showing off their acrobatic flying skills by purposely dropping a bit of food while up in the air and swooping down to catch it?
Gulls. Not seagulls, please! We may find them obnoxious, noisy, messy, even aggressive – they’ve been known to grab a french fry from someone quietly enjoying lunch outside – but they play a vital role in cleaning our environment. They are also intelligent, adaptable, playful and make great parents. They specialize in kleptoparasitism – stealing food from each other or from other birds. You might have observed a gull flying away with its treasure only to be chased by other gulls trying to wrest away its food.
While preferably not usually seen at our feeders or in our gardens, gulls are part of the urban landscape. We see them as they soar above parking lots, swooping down to pick up a scrap of food and scavenging garbage. They can be seen all over the city, including in our neighbourhood at Lansdowne Park or Dow’s Lake.
There are about 27 species of gulls. Inland, they are found around lakes and rivers and in urban environments. Around here, the Ring-billed gull is the most common gull. During migration seasons, other gulls pass through, including the Herring gull, recognizable by the red dot on its bill, and the Great black-backed gull, which stands out from a flock of gulls due to its sheer size.
Gulls live in colonies ranging in size from just a few pairs to tens of thousands of birds. The colonies can be seen, among other places, along the Ottawa River, around the rapids. All gulls are monogamous and mate for life, returning to the same breeding and roosting site every year. Ring-billed gulls are about the size of a crow with a wingspan of about 120 cm. They can fly fast, up to 70 kph, but not particularly high, and they take advantage of thermals to hover above the water to look for prey – they have excellent eyesight, one of the few birds whose eyes can move in their sockets. They live quite long, up to 15 years, though the average is between five and 10 years.
Gulls build their nests close to the ground, usually near fresh water. Nests are not elaborate, sometimes just a dip in the ground, lined with vegetation, hidden behind plants or near a bush for safety. Gull pairs share nest building, incubation and feeding of chicks. Two to four eggs are laid – they are about the size of a small hen’s egg and are incubated for three or more weeks. A baby gull, called a nestling, can wander out of the nest by the second day, but most will leave after four or five days and are looked after by the parents for several weeks. Gulls will eat anything, as we know, but are careful to feed their chicks only nutritious insects or small fish.
Like many creatures, gulls transfer their hunting skills and techniques to their offspring. In the colony, young gulls, distinguished by their brown mottled plumage, form nursery flocks in which they will learn life skills, usually from a few adult males. These flocks will stay together until they are old enough to breed.
Ever wonder how some birds are able to drink both seawater and freshwater? Marine birds, such as gulls, penguins, puffins and pelicans, have built in desalination filters in the form of a salt gland and duct located about the eyes and connected to their bill. When there’s an excess of salt, such as when eating prey straight from the sea, the salty fluid is passed through the gland, and excess salt is excreted from the nostril.
Fun fact: the demand for white feathers from gulls, as well as from egrets and herons, to adorn hats and gowns led to a serious decline in gulls in the late 19th century. They made a rapid comeback after they became protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty between Canada and the U.S. in 1917.
Perhaps you will reconsider your opinion of “those pesky gulls!”
If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, consider joining Project FeederWatch, a project of Birds Canada in conjunction with The Cornell Lab. Data collected helps monitor birds in our area and helps our birds in winter. (birdscanada.org).
Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and Glebe Report proofreader.