Birds – American Herring Gull

(Lanus argentatus smithsonianus)

Called also: WINTER GULL Length—24 to 25 inches.

Male and Female-In summer: Mantle over back and wings deep pearl gray, also known as ” gull blue ; ” head, tail, and under parts white. Outer feathers of wings chiefly black, with rounded white spots near the tips. Bill bright yellow. Feet and legs flesh-colored. In winter: Similar to summer plumage, but with grayish streaks or blotches about the head and neck. Bill less bright.

Young—Upper parts dull ashy brown ; head and neck marked with buff, and back and wings margined and marked with the same color ; outer feathers of wings brownish black, lacking round white spots ; black or brownish tail feathers gradually fade to white.

Range—Nests from Minnesota and New England northward, especially about the St. Lawrence, Nova Scotia, Newfound-land, and Labrador. Winters from Bay of Fundy to West Indies and Lower California.

Season—Winter resident. Common from November until March.

As the English sparrow is to the land birds, so is the herring gull to the sea fowl—overwhelmingly predominant during the winter in the Great Lakes and larger waterways of the interior, just as it is about the docks of our harbors, along our coasts, and very far out at sea; for trustworthy captains declare the same birds follow their ships from port to port across the ocean.

Occasionally at low tide one may meet with a few herring gulls on the sand flats of the beach, feeding on the smaller shell fish half buried there. It is Audubon, the unimpeachable, who relates how these birds, that he so carefully studied in Labrador one summer, break open the shells to extract the mollusks, by carrying them up in the air, then dropping them on the rocks. “We saw one that had met with a very hard mussel,” he writes, ” take it up three times in succession before it succeeded in breaking it ; and I was much pleased to see the bird let it fall each succeeding time from a greater height than before.”

Again, one may see a flock of herring gulls “bedded” on the water floating about to rest. All manner of boats pass close beside such a tired company in New York harbor without disturbing it; for these gulls, unlike the glaucous and black-backed species, show little fear of man or his inventions.

But it is high in air, sailing on motionless wings in the wake of an ocean steamer, that one mentally pictures the herring gull. Apparently the loose flock, floating idly about, have no thought beyond the pure sport. Suddenly one bird drops like a shot to the water’s surface, spatters about with much wing-flap–ping and struggle of feet, then, rising again with a small fish or morsel of refuse in its grasp, leads off from a greedy horde of envious companions in hot pursuit that likely as not will over-haul him and rob him of his dinner. Dining abundantly and often, rather than flying about for idle pleasure, is the gull’s real business of life.

With all their exquisite poetry of motion, it must be owned that these birds have also numerous prosaic qualities, exercised in their capacity of scavengers. Rapacious feeders, tyrannical to smaller birds that they can rob of their prey, and possessed of insatiable appetites for any food, whether fresh or putrid, that comes in their reach, the gulls alternately fascinate by their grace and animation in the marine picture, and repel by the coarseness of their instincts. However, it is churlish to find fault with the scavengers that help so largely in keeping our beaches free from putrifying rubbish. Doubtless the birds themselves, as their name implies, would prefer herrings were they always available.

Unlike the other gulls, this one, where it has been persistently robbed, sometimes nests in trees, and, adapting its architecture to the exigencies of the situation, constructs a compactly built and bulky home, often fifty feet from the ground, and preferably in a fir or other evergreen. Ordinarily a coarse, loose mat of moss, grasses, and seaweed is laid directly on the ground or on a rocky cliff near the sea. Two or three grayish olive brown, sometimes whitish, eggs, spotted, blotched, and scrawled with brown, are laid in June. In the nesting grounds the herring gulls are shy of men and fierce in defending their mates and young, to whom they are especially devoted. Akak, kakak they scream or bark at the intruder, making a din that is fairly deafening.

Before the summer is ended the baby gulls will have learned to breast a gale, sleep with head tucked under wing when rocked on the cradle of the deep, and follow a ship for the ref-use thrown overboard, like any veteran. They are the grayish brown birds which one can readily pick out in a flock of adults when they migrate to our coasts in winter.