For the Birds Radio Program: Gulls

Original Air Date: July 1, 1987

Laura’s children enjoy watching gulls, but not everyone does. (3:35)

Duration: 3′37″


(Recording of a Ring-billed Gull).

Fast food restaurants never used to have live entertainment, but the huge population of gulls making their niche in our fast-food franchise habitat is now one of the Northland’s biggest acts. I’m not sure just how long a gull can survive on french fries and hamburger buns–items presumably unavailable in the natural world. In most Midwestern cities House Sparrows are the species people associate with McDonald’s, which makes sense, considering that House Sparrows have followed the course of civilization from earliest history. Their generations are much shorter than our own, and so it’s been an easy matter for sparrows to adapt to the simple, basic diet of early Mesopotamians, through the more varied foods available at Ancient Roman festivals, all the way to the upscale, trendy foods of the 80’s. But now Duluth’s exploding population of seagulls seems determined to beat out House Sparrows as the junk food junkies of the bird world.

Although both Herring and Ring-billed Gulls are found in Duluth in summer, only the Ring-bills mooch at McDonald’s. If the gulls begging from you look like two different kinds, it’s because it takes a couple of years for them to assume adult plumage, with the pure white underside and tail, gray mantle, black wingtips, and black spot on the yellow bill. Young birds are just as big as adults, but they’re mottled. The best way to identify a young Ring-billed Gull is that each tail feather has a dark smudge near the tip, and these smudges form a neat band all the way across.

Each gull uses a different strategy in begging. One or two scouts loaf around on the tables waiting for a likely prospect. They’re pretty certain to get the first bite, but after that it’s every bird for himself. The moment a promising human shows up, several new gulls descend, like a pack of hungry reporters at the first hint of scandal. Some of them scream and dart in close enough to alarm anyone who fell under the spell of Alfred Hitchcock’s avain terrors–the Sam Donaldsons of the bird world. More polite ones keep some distance between themselves and their human benefactors, and a few have learned that sitting quietly in the background earns pity points from people who favor the underdog.

The people feeding them are just as interesting. Most toss one or two fries out, and I’ve watched some people go back in and buy more food in the naive hope of satisfying the whole lot. That’s a futile effort– the more they see, the more they want, and the more they want, the more they yell–alerting even more gulls along franchise row. Most people who dislike these voracious beggars wisely eat indoors, but inevitably one or two stubborn bird-haters illogically want the great outdoors without its wildlife. Last week I watched one guy waving his arms, swearing, and running around chasing the gulls like a horseless cowboy, but the birds maintained their cool as they deftly kept their distance, raising their nictitating membranes at some of his more colorful language. My children were dumbfounded that a grown man couldn’t figure out the simple rule that if you don’t like the seagulls, eat inside.

(Recording of Ring-billed Gulls).

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”