Birds – Bonaparte’s Gull

(Larus philadelphia)

Called also: ROSY GULL

Length—14 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Head and throat deep sooty slate, the hood not extending over nape or sides of neck, which are white like the under parts and tail. Mantle over back and wings pearl gray. Wings white and pearl gray. Primaries of wings marked with black and white. Bill black. Legs and feet coral red. In nesting plumage only, the white under parts are suffused with rosy pink. In winter: Similar, except that the birds lack the dark hood, only the back and sides of the head washed with grayish; white on top.

Young—Grayish washings on top of head, nape, and ears; mantle over back and wings varying from brownish gray to pearl gray; upper half of wings grayish brown; secondaries pearly gray; primaries, or longest feathers, at the end much marked with black; white tail has black band a short distance from end, leaving a white edge showing. Underneath, white.

Range—From the Gulf of Mexico to Manitoba and beyond in the interior; Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Nests north of United States.

Season—Common spring and autumn migrant. A few winter north.

This exquisite little gull, whose darting, skimming flight suggests that of the sea swallow, flies swallow-fashion over the ploughed fields of the interior to gather larva and insects, as well as over the ocean to pick up bits of animal food, either fresh or putrid, that float within range of its keen, nervous glance. Jerking its head now this way and now that, suddenly it turns in its graceful flight to swoop backward upon some particle passed a second before. Nothing it craves for food seems to escape either the eyes or the bill of this tireless little scavenger. In sudden freaks of flight, in agility and lightness of motion, it is conspicuous in a family noted for grace on the wing.

A front view of Bonaparte’s gull, as it approaches with its long pointed wings outspread, would give one the impression that it is a black-headed white bird, until, darting suddenly, its pearly mantle is revealed. It is peculiarly dainty whichever way you look at it.

In the author’s note book are constant memoranda of seeing these little gulls hunting in couples through the surf on the Florida coast one March. Mr. Bradford Torrey records the same observation, but adds, ” that may have been nothing more than a coincidence.” Is it not probable that these gulls, like all their kin, in their devotion to their mates, were already paired and migrating toward their nesting grounds far to the north ? While the birds hunted along the Florida shore they kept up a plaintive, shrill, but rather feeble cry, that was almost a whistle, to each other; and if one was delayed a moment by dipping into the trough of the wave for some floating morsel, it would nervously hurry after its mate as if unwilling to lose a second of its company. In the autumn migrations, however, these “surf gulls,” as Mr. Torrey calls them, are seen in large flocks along our coasts, and inland, too, where there is no surf for a thousand miles.

The nest, which is built north of the United States, is placed sometimes in trees, sometimes in stumps, or in bushes, the rude cradle of sticks, lined with grasses, containing three or four grayish olive eggs, spotted with brown, chiefly at the larger end. Such a clutch is a rare find for the collector, few scientists, even, having seen the Bonaparte gulls at home. Charles Bonaparte, Prince of Canino, might have left us a complete life history of his namesake, had not European politics cut short his happy and profitable visit in America.