Birds – Great Black-backed Gull

(Larus marinus)

Called also : SADDLE-BACK ; COBB; COFFIN CARRIER Length—29 to 30 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Mantle over back and wings dark slaty brown, almost black ; wing feathers tipped with white; rest of plumage white. Bill yellow, red at the angle. Feet and legs pinkish. In winter: Similar to summer dress except that the white head and neck are streaked with grayish. Immature birds are mottled brown and white, the perfect plumage described above not being attained until the fourth year.

Range—Coasts of North Atlantic. Nests from Nova Scotia northward. Migrates in winter sometimes to South Carolina and Virginia, but regularly to Long Island and the Great Lakes. Season—September to April.

The black-back shares the distinction with the burgomaster of being not only one of the largest, most powerful representatives of its family, but one of the most tyrannical and greedy. So optimistic a bird-lover as Audubon said that it is as much the tyrant of the sea fowl as the eagle is of the land birds. Like the eagle again, it is exceedingly shy of men and inaccessible. ” By far the wariest bird that I have ever met,” writes Brewster. This same careful observer reports that he noted four distinct cries : “a braying Ha-ha-ha, a deep keow, keow, a short barking note, and a long-drawn groan, very loud and decidedly impressive,” when he studied it in the island of Anticosti.

Soaring high in the air in great spirals, with majestic grace and power, the saddle-back still keeps a watchful eye on what is passing in the world below, and, quick as a hawk, will come swooping down to pounce upon some smaller gull or other bird that has just secured a fish by patient toil, to suck the eggs in a nest left for the moment unguarded, or eat the young eider-ducks and willow grouse for which it seems to have a special fondness; though nothing either young and tender, old and tough, fresh or carrion, goes amiss of its rapacious maw. It is a sea scavenger of more than ordinary capacity, and when faithfully playing in this role it lays us under obligation to speak well of it. Certainly the gulls and other sea fowl that eat refuse contribute much to the healthfulness of our coasts.

Before the onslaughts of this black-backed freebooter almost all the tribe of sea fowl quail ; and yet, like every other tyrant, it is itself most cowardly, for it will desert even its own young rather than be approached by man, who visits the sins of the father upon the children by pickling them for food when they are not taken in the egg for boiling.

Usually the nest is built with hundreds or even thousands of others on some inaccessible cliff overhanging the sea; or it may be on an island, or on the dunes near the beach, in which latter case it is the merest depression in the turf, lined with grass and seaweed. Two or three—usually three—clay-colored or buff eggs, rather evenly and boldly spotted with chocolate brown, make a clutch. After the nesting season these gulls migrate ‘farther south-ward than the glaucous gulls, not because they are incapable of withstanding the most intense cold, but because the fish supply is of course greater in the open waters of our coast. With majestic grace they skim along the waves, revealing the dark slate-colored mantle covering their backs like a pall, for which they must bear the gruesome name of “Coffin Carrier.”