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What are Gulls?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated May 21, 2024
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Gulls are scavenger birds belonging to the Larinae family, and are commonly referred to as seagulls or seabirds. Several different birds belong to this group, and though they may different somewhat in size and color, they do share some common characteristics. Though they live in coastal regions, contrary to popular belief, these birds do not usually fly far out to sea. For reasons of safety and food supply, the birds usually stay close to shore. Coloring can vary, but most gulls are white with black markings on their backs and wingtips.

The herring gull of the northern hemisphere is probably the most common species of Larinae. In some coastal areas, these birds are so plentiful that they are considered pests. They tend to follow fishing boats in an attempt to eat any bait that is cast. In open waters, these birds eat fish that are near the surface of the water, and on land, because they are carrion eaters, they typically eat dead fish that are washed to shore. In well-populated areas, seagulls are also often found scavenging in or around garbage dumps.

Gulls usually have one mate for life, but they travel and roost in flocks. In less populated areas, they often nest on the ground, close to the shoreline. In habitats where they feel more threatened, the birds usually roost in trees or on rooftops. When it is time for hatching, female gulls build nests out of seaweed and twigs. Though baby gulls begin flying within days after hatching, they stay under the mother’s care until they are about a month old.

Seagulls usually have a life span of about ten years, though in rare cases, they may live as long as 25 years. Life span usually depends on the food supply and the safety of their environment. Gulls that live in areas that are more isolated tend to live longer than those living near well-populated coastal environments.

Unlike most other birds, seagulls can safely consume salt water. This is because they have glands that are able to separate salt from the water, preventing it from entering their digestive tracts. These glands are located above and behind their eyes. Once salt is deposited into the glands, it is flushed out through their beaks.

Though most adult gulls are white, as babies they begin life with brown coloring. The birth coloring beings to gradually change as they grow older. Weight and wingspan of gulls can vary somewhat, depending on the type of gull. The average wingspan of seagulls range from about 40 inches (101 cm) to 60 inches (152 cm).

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are gulls and where can they be found?

Gulls are medium to large seabirds, belonging to the family Laridae, known for their adaptability and intelligence. They are commonly found in coastal regions around the world but can also be seen inland near bodies of water. Gulls are highly migratory and can cover vast distances, with some species like the Herring Gull being widespread across the Northern Hemisphere.

How many species of gulls are there, and do they vary significantly?

There are approximately 50 species of gulls, and they exhibit significant variation in size, color, and behavior. For instance, the Little Gull is the smallest species with a wingspan of just 24 inches, while the Great Black-backed Gull can span up to 65 inches. Their diets also vary, ranging from fish and insects to scavenging on human refuse.

What do gulls typically eat and how do they find their food?

Gulls are opportunistic feeders with diverse diets that include fish, insects, worms, small rodents, and even other birds. They are skilled foragers, often following fishing boats for scraps or using clever techniques like dropping shells on rocks to access the food inside. Some gulls have adapted to urban environments where they scavenge human food waste.

Are gulls considered intelligent birds, and what behaviors demonstrate this?

Gulls are indeed considered intelligent among birds. They exhibit complex social behavior, problem-solving skills, and are known to use tools. For example, they drop hard-shelled prey onto rocks to break them open. Gulls also communicate with a sophisticated system of calls and are capable of learning and remembering the behavior of others, indicating high cognitive abilities.

How do gulls interact with their environment and other species?

Gulls are highly adaptable, interacting with their environment in ways that showcase their opportunistic nature. They often form symbiotic relationships with other species, such as following predators to scavenge leftovers. In urban areas, gulls have learned to navigate human environments, exploiting food sources and nesting sites, which sometimes leads to conflicts with people.

What conservation status do gulls have, and are any species at risk?

The conservation status of gulls varies by species. While many are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN, some species are at risk due to habitat loss, pollution, and climate change. The IUCN lists the Black-billed Gull as critically endangered, with populations declining due to human impact on their riverine habitat. Conservation efforts are crucial for protecting these vulnerable species.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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