For the Birds Radio Program: Ring-billed Gull

Original Air Date: July 6, 1988

Army worms are taking some of the pressure off Ring-billed Gulls in the area of bad PR. (3:40)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Ring-billed Gull)

The nicest thing about army worms is that they take some attention away from the Northland’s Ring-billed Gull population explosion. I’m partial to gulls, and welcome almost any kind of natural creatures in a city. But Ring-billed Gulls have become such a huge presence in Duluth that there have been quite a few unpleasant interchanges between them and humans. Kids have been found tossing lighted firecrackers to mooching gulls, who mistake them for french fries; I’ve seen quite a few road-killed gulls; and some are showing signs of malnutrition. And, sadly, even the people who feel kindly toward the gulls have been exacerbating the problems–some people are training the gulls to take food out of their hands, off their heads, and even from their teeth, so that some individual gulls have pretty much lost their natural and necessary fear of human beings. And the worst of it is that this isn’t only a problem for the birds–at least one human girl has required medical treatment in an emergency room after a gull trained by people to come too close bit her finger trying to steal her lunch.

The gulls in the Great Lakes Region are currently in the midst of a population explosion. It’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago virtually no gulls at all nested in the Duluth harbor–the first known nest in the Port Terminal, of a single pair of birds, was not found until 1974, although sporadic nesting may have occurred before then. Now, just 14 years later, there are about 20,000 Ring-billed Gulls in the nesting colony, based on last year’s census. But the gull population has a history of boom and bust. John James Audubon named it the Common American Gull, and found it the most abundant gull throughout the midwest. But by the early 1900’s, the gulls had been eliminated from just about all their nesting colonies. Nobody knows why, though the market for their delectable eggs certainly contributed to their destruction.

Ring-billed Gulls also have a long history of mooching for treats from people, and of following plows to eat the turned up insects.

The main problem with gulls is that they’re so much like us. They eat the same food–well, almost–we eat more ice cream and hot chocolate and they eat more slugs, but otherwise we’re pretty even on the food front. Like us, they’re sociable but don’t always get along with each other; they take good care of their children; and they enjoy the same beaches and picnic places people do. We’re supposedly smarter, but I’ve seen plenty of evidence that our intelligence is overrated.

The only way that people and gulls are going to peacefully coexist is if people start using the brains that we supposedly have. Of course, considering the poor record for some Duluthians getting along with their fellow human beings, maybe we just can’t expect people to get along with birds. But a few sensible rules might help. First of all, don’t feed gulls at picnic tables or park benches. If you want to feed them at an outdoor restaurant or picnic area, toss the food away from the general direction of other people. And as fun as it is to get a wild bird to come close, don’t encourage any gull to take food from your hand–both people and gulls are better off keeping at least a little distance between us. The gulls are here to stay, and peaceful coexistence will make us all richer.

(Recording of a Ring-billed Gull)

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