by Darcy Thomas
I know. Gulls have a reputation. People take exception to them for many reasons. One of my favorite stories is told by my own husband. “I got a couple breakfast jacks at Jack in the Box and went to the lake to enjoy a picnic. As I was eating one of the sandwiches, I got up to take a closer look at something that interested me. A gull flew over and landed in front of me eating a sandwich that looked suspiciously like mine. I thought to myself, ‘what schmuck would leave food out for the gulls to get?’ Then, suddenly suspicious, I turned to see that my other sandwich was no longer on the table. I guess I was the schmuck”. We all have stories of gulls aggressively mobbing people to steal food out of their hands, spreading trash around that they take out of bins and just making a lot of noise.
As if this were not bad enough, gulls are just darn difficult to identify. I love how Nicholas Lund, contributor to the Audubon Magazine puts it in his “Birdist Rules of Birding” column. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Gulls are the most difficult group of birds to identify. All the different species are just variations on the same basic theme: a gray back on a white body. There’s no, like, Red Gull, where you can look out and say, “Oh yeah, there’s a Red Gull. It’s the one that’s red.” Nope, of the twenty-or-so gull species you may encounter in America, they’ve all more or less got a gray back and a white body.”
However, gulls are fascinating and worth the challenge to learn about. Here I will give you a piece of advice taken from ornithologist Alvaro Jaramillo. When talking about learning to identify sparrows which are difficult as they are seemingly similar “little brown jobs” he advises to take a close look at the song sparrow and learn it in well. If you study the details of this common sparrow, you’ll be prepared to recognize another sparrow that is less common. The same can be said of gulls. The good news for wannabe gull identifiers, is that we don’t have a wide variety of gulls in Montana and Ring-bills are the gulls you are most likely to see away from the coast. This makes them a great beginner gull. Learn to identify it well. Then, when you see a gull that is not a Ring-billed gull, you will know immediately you have something different.
So, let’s get down to basics. Ring-billed Gulls are not shy of humans and are often found hunting food on the wing or while afloat or on foot in places where people like to congregate. Around the Flathead Valley you are likely to see them in parking lots, sports fields, golf courses, at the city dump as well as in agricultural fields, along the rivers and on the lakes. They are opportunistic feeders, and their diet consists of a wide variety of foods such as fish, insects, worms, rodents, grain, and garbage. They will also eat human foods that are discarded or, as my husband could tell you, left unattended. Ring-billed Gulls are medium-sized with a somewhat short, thin bill. The wingtips extend past the tail and are tipped in black and spotted in white. In flight, they are acrobatic and their wings appear very slender. It takes three years for Ring-billed Gulls to reach maturity. This is a little tricky so take your time when learning.
Juvenile Ring-bills are a mottled brown and white with pink legs and a pink bill with a dark tip. Their eyes are dark. First winter birds begin to get gray feathers on their back but still have a lot of brown on their wings and some brown throughout the rest of their body. Second winter birds show more gray color in their wings, but they continue to have varying amounts of brown streaking on their heads, neck and chest. The bill and legs are beginning to turn yellow. Breeding adults have clean white heads with pale eyes, yellow legs, and a yellow bill with a black band. Non-breeding adults, which we see in the winter months have brown-streaked heads.
Look closely when looking at a colony of Ring-billed Gulls. Try to pick out the first and second winter birds and look for any juveniles. Also, look to see if there is a gull that looks very different. It may be smaller or larger, have a darker gray back. It may have pink or green legs. It may have a red spot on the bill. It may lack black in the wingtips. These are indicators of a different gull species. So, now you know you have something different than the Ring-billed Gull, which you now know very well. Get out your field guide and narrow down the possibilities of what this new gull is. And keep studying. The more you watch gulls and study them the better you will get. But remember the most important rule of all. Do not leave your sandwiches unattended!
References available upon request from firstname.lastname@example.org.