For the Birds Radio Program: Herring Gulls

Original Air Date: Jan. 25, 1989

Herring Gulls are as much a part of our winter world as lutefisk, and just about as welcome.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Herring Gull)

When birdwatchers come to Duluth from around the country in winter, one of the first places they go is to the dump. Yes, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District landfill is a mecca for birders. Of course our dump is hardly unique. The best known place in all of Texas for finding Mexican Crows is the Brownsville dump, and the Salisbury dump near the Maryland/ Delaware border is prime habitat for a wide variety of gulls. The dump in Port Wing, Wisconsin, is so popular with people looking for bears, Turkey Vultures, and ravens, that for a brief period it even sported a sign, “Port Wing Zoo.”

Yes, although most people associate bird watching with pleasant outings in the woods, a surprising amount of a birder’s field time is actually spent watching out for garbage trucks and front-end loaders as he or she looks at the thousands of birds attracted to the abundant waste of civilization.

Although in past winters Duluth’s garbage has provided a feast for such exotic gull species as Iceland, Thayer’s, Glaucous, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gull, this year birders have been only able to find one species, the most common gull in the world, the Herring Gull. Herring Gulls are named for one of their preferred foods, herring, but they don’t object to a few scraps of pickled herring mixed with dried oatmeal, chicken bones, table scraps, and the kinds of garbage you try not to think about in the morning. These birds are found at dumps throughout Europe, Asia, and much of Africa as well as in the United States.

Herring Gulls the world over are known by the scientific name Larus argentatus. The genus name Larus simply means gull in Latin, but the specific epithet argentatus comes from the Latin word for silvery. The scientific symbol of the chemical element silver, Ag, has the exact same derivation, as does the country Argentina, presumably named for its many deposits of precious metals.

Herring Gulls may be silvery colored, especially framed against a blue January sky, but they’re decidedly not precious. These gulls are one of the prime avian culprits in airplane crashes worldwide, spending much of their time near airports where they are occasionally sucked into jet engines. The Duluth landfill had to be temporarily closed until strict regulations were developed for minimizing the amount of edible garbage available for gulls after the FCC ruled that they presented a serious hazard to aircraft. You can’t just get rid of the gulls—if we bombed out the entire local population, there would still be plenty more world-wide to take their place. They are one of the few species that is more abundant now than ever before—the waste of our industrial world has enabled them to increase and multiply throughout the northern hemisphere.

Although cities along the shores of Lake Superior have a regular wintering population of Herring Gulls, these birds are far less common in the rest of the Northland, away from the big lake. And very few of them nest in Duluth. Our big summer colony of breeding gulls is entirely made up of Ring-billed Gulls, which are also expanding their population throughout the Great Lakes region. In spite of their appetite for garbage, Herring Gulls are more wary and wild than their smaller relative, and don’t mooch for fries or swarm over Canal Park.

When the temperature plummets far below zero, Herring Gulls often disappear from the Northland for a few days. No one really knows exactly where they go, but they always seem to come back when the temperature climbs to the 20’s again. They are as much a part of our winter world as lutefisk, and just about as welcome.

(Recording of a Herring Gull)

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