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In Defense of Sea Gulls: They’re Smart, and They Co-Parent, 50/50 All the Way

Here are three good things about gulls:

They are devoted parents.

Males share child care equally with females. That includes sitting on the eggs during incubation.

And they have figured out a way — actually many ways — to survive in a harsh and unforgiving world. Some eat clams, some eat fish, some are attracted to landfills.

Of course, a few will divebomb you at the beach or boardwalk to steal a French fry, or the cheese on your cracker, or an entire slice of pizza.

The beach pirate approach to survival is, of course, where humans and gulls clash. And the outcry from humans is almost as loud and outraged as the cries of the gulls themselves. Several recent news articles have chronicled the predations of gulls and some possible remedies.

Ocean City, N.J., is bringing in hawks, and some scientists have suggested staring directly at gulls to fend them off. Though that is hard to do when the birds sneak up behind you as you are putting cheese on a cracker.

There are some reports of more serious trouble. In England, a woman said a gull carried off her Chihuahua, and in Russia a pilot was hailed as a hero for safely landing his plane after a collision with a flock of gulls. In the New York area, thousands of birds, including gulls, have been killed in the decade since the Miracle on the Hudson crash to clear the skies for airplanes, without an apparent reduction in bird strikes.

But it’s at the beach where tempers flare most predictably. And in times like these, with heightened human-gull tensions, very little has been written about the gulls’ point of view.

Is there a Lorax who speaks for the gulls? Admittedly, gulls have quite a strong voice of their own, it’s just that it’s pretty unintelligible to most of us.

An ornithologist would seem to be the obvious choice. They like birds. I called Christopher Elphick at the University of Connecticut. He spends a lot of time studying sparrows, but has a soft spot for gulls.

“They’ve found a way to succeed in the world,” he said. “So much biodiversity is suffering and disappearing and being lost. A part of me wants to just celebrate the fact that there are some organisms that can adapt and do well.”

ImageCreditPeter Parks/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesImageCreditSarah Courchesne

There are more than 100 species of gulls worldwide, and they are doing well, by and large. Some live nowhere near the sea, which makes birders and ornithologists allergic to the common term sea gull, although renegade friends of common language have called this attitude “birdsplaining.”

A few, like the Ivory gull in the Arctic, which is near threatened, and the black-billed gull in New Zealand, which is endangered, are in trouble, but most are not.

The gulls that people are most likely to encounter on Northeastern beaches in August are herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, ring-billed gulls and laughing gulls. Some of their populations are declining, but that is probably because they reached historic highs in the 20th century.

Before that time, some of those gulls were not found in New York or New Jersey. Herring gulls were first spotted nesting on Long Island in 1931, for instance. They began to spread in the 1960s and peaked in the ’80s.

Dr. Elphick said, and ornithologists and birders speculate, that the closing of open landfills like Fresh Kills on Staten Island may have something to do with the drop in numbers since then. “There’s many a birder, especially those who’ve been around for 20 to 30 years, who will complain about the closing of landfills and how it’s removed their best places to go watch gulls,” he said.

Dr. Sarah J. Courchesne has been part of a summer gull research program at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Me., since 2008.

She admits that the herring gulls and black-backed gulls there do not always take kindly to visitors. But these are breeding colonies, and the researchers take young birds off the nest, examine them and put identification bands on them.

“This is like somebody walked into your house in the night and picked up your child and tried to walk off with them,” she said. “You would be alarmed.”

As are the gulls. So much so that the volunteers wear bike helmets and sometimes ponchos. Gull poop can ruin a shirt.

“Some gulls are just kind of psycho and others are really chill,” she said. Some birds sit quietly on a nest and allow themselves to be lifted off by volunteers who check the babies.

ImageCreditYiannis Kourtoglou/ReuterImageCreditSarah Courchesne

And the same variation occurs in how any given gull makes a living. Thousands and thousands forage for clams, follow fishing boats and shop at the local landfills.

“We have gulls that are never seen on beaches and we know that because we have GPS loggers on them and they just never go near people,” Dr. Courchesne said. “They are 100 percent out at sea fishing for their own food.”

“I can’t deny that there are gulls that are stealing food,” she added. “And I can’t deny they are really good at it.”

But the thieves are specialists. And to give credit where it is due, they have worked at their trade. “If you’re dealing with a gull that is really talented at stealing food,” Dr. Courchesne said, “that gull has perfected the technique, possibly over the course of years.”

Who speaks for the gulls?When in Rome, Sea Gulls Do as They PleaseSept. 4, 2018Flying Assassins Are Called In to Combat Aggressive GullsAug. 15, 2019Want to Stop Gulls From Stealing Your Food? Stare Them Down, Study SaysAug. 7, 2019

Also, the behavior that bothers humans so much begins with humans themselves.

“Everybody who goes to the beach and gets aggravated by a gull has previous humans to thank for it,” Dr. Courchesne said. You may not have given the gulls food, but somebody else did, and gulls are fast learners. At nearby beaches on the mainland, she said, “You’ll see people drive up to the beach and they’ll just dump an entire container of French fries out their window so the gulls come.”

Dr. Elphick agreed. “We’re slobs,” he said. “If we didn’t leave food lying around, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.”

Dr. Courchesne, a veterinarian, teaches biology at Northern Essex Community College as well as being one of the leaders of the gull program at Appledore. (Her students often volunteer for the gull program.) She came to gulls partly because she loved birds, and even in veterinary school she knew she would not be treating pets. “I don’t like dogs,” she said.

She often hears from the public, since a major part of the research at Appledore involves banding young gulls and getting reports about where they turn up. She tries to turn correspondents into gull admirers or, at least, gull tolerators.

“People say, so here’s a bird, it tried to steal my sandwich. It has a band on it so I guess you want to hear about it,” she said.

“We’ll tell them the whole history. Some of these birds are 12 to 15 years old.” She tells them how many offspring they have and what devoted parents they are, and how the “mother” that they saw may well have been a male helping his young.

Late August is “high time for harassment,” she said, because the young have fledged and their adult parents take them to foraging spots, which include beaches and boardwalks, to find food and to teach them the ropes. The gulls, like the humans, bring their whole families. “They’re being so pushy for food because they’re such committed parents,” she said.

“I have really come to love them,” she said. “They’re my favorite birds. They’re so scrappy and they’re overlooked.”

What does she recommend that the public do about gulls?

“I would recommend to people that they spend some time just bird watching,” Dr. Courchesne said. “Sit back and watch what they do.”

“If you give them a little time and devote your attention to them you will see this great intelligence behind that eye and this caginess, and this generalist sensibility that I think is very relatable to a human,” she said. “Because it’s kind of the same way we go through the world.”

ImageCreditErica Nardone


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