Newport This Week

The Gulls are Here to Stay



It is right for a gull to fly, that freedom is the very nature of his being, that whatever stands against that freedom must be set aside, be it ritual or superstition or limitation in any form.

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” by Richard Bach

Sunset at Battery Park is one of the joys of living in the City by the Sea. Sitting on a bench with a friend the other night, watching the bright red sun sink slowly into the horizon, my attention was drawn to the large birds winging by.

The gulls appeared as silhouettes against the darkening sky. Their crooked wings were outstretched to catch the updraft off the sea wall, so they could soar without moving a feather. Silent for once, just playing in the wind before night fell, they went to roost.

Much of the year, like the crows of Newport, the gulls seem to commute to work each day before returning home to the safety of the flock in the evening. Crows gather in trees, but gulls spend the dark hours on the water or in open areas, like beaches, parking lots or athletic fields. The many eyes of the flock and the open roost areas afford an excellent chance of spying a predator before damage can be done.

Illustration by Dorcie Sarantos

Illustration by Dorcie Sarantos

Also, like crows, gulls have evolved into opportunistic scavengers who will feed on what is available, whether that be washed up clams, earthworms after a rain storm, or French fries from a dumpster.

Rather than shrinking from human development, gulls have learned to take full advantage of it. Parking lots poured over their sandy habitat? Perfect for dropping clams and crabs to get at the tender meat inside. People crowding their nesting areas? Well, they come with all sorts of snacks.

Personally, I am still a little bitter about the ham sandwich that was stolen directly out of my hand five summers ago. But I do like watching the gulls walk up to a beach blanket, take the lid off the cooler and proceed to rummage through a picnic lunch. I can imagine that Fort Adams after the folk festival is like a gourmet restaurant for the gulls and crows.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Nature lover Laureen Parmelee of Newport is senior director of education at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

Many people lump all gulls together under the heading “seagull.” However, there are at least 28 species of gulls in North America, and a few of them have been known to interbreed. They also take several years to mature, with the young birds moving through different color patterns as they grow. All this makes gulls an interesting identification challenge for birders.

If you watch the gulls at Second Beach, you will notice there is a hierarchy of power determined by their size and attitude. The great black-backed gull is at the top of the pecking order, followed by the herring gull, with the ringbilled and laughing gulls demurely coming in last. Great black-back gulls are, in fact, the largest gull species in the world, with a wingspan of five feet and weighing up to 4.5 pounds. Their brashness reflects their size, and they will often bully and steal food from other birds.

Adult great black-backs are sharply “dressed,” with bright white bodies, dark backs, and upper wings, a bright yellow beak with a red spot near the end, and pink legs. The juveniles, which take four years to mature, have black beaks and a gray-brown-and-white checkered pattern.

Like many gull species, these gulls were once hunted in the 1800s for their feathers, which were used by the fashion industry. Since the passage of the Migratory Bird Species Act in 1918, their population has rebounded, and with the extensive food available from humans, the Rhode Island population seems to be doing quite well.

Herring gulls are the quintessential seagull, with a bright white body, light gray back, gray wings with black tips, a yellow beak and yellow eyes. They are no match for the great black-backs, but they are still a hefty bird with a 4.5-foot wingspan. It never occurred to me to ask why they are called “herring” gulls until one day I watched one busily pulling herring out of the fish run at the Gilbert Stuart homestead.

I admire the tenacity of gulls, but they do not make good neighbors. When I lived at the other end of Broadway, the house next door had a flat gravel roof that made a perfect nesting habitat for a couple of pairs of herring gulls. Many local gulls breed on the islands of Narragansett Bay, where their ground nests are safe from predatory mammals (although not from other gulls), but these families chose to live with a view of City Hall. As you can imagine, a gull alarm clock is loud, raucous, repetitive, and very effective.

When I go to Second Beach, I prefer to sit as far away from the refreshment stand as possible. At Camper’s Beach, the black-backs and herring gulls are not as prevalent, and I find the smaller ring-billed gulls more entertaining than annoying.

Ring-billed gulls have the same basic coloration as a herring gull, but they have a black ring around the end of their shorter yellow beak and a much smaller wingspan. They are more wary of humans and will pace around your blanket in a wide circle, waiting for you to go into the water before venturing in to see what your blanket has to offer.

You can see ring-billed gulls in Rhode Island all year, but they don’t breed here. Instead, they nest in large colonies along shorelines in the northern U.S. and Canada. I swear the same ring-billed gull kept me company at Second Beach for several summers. I called him “limpy,” because of his unique gait, but my non-birding friends just shake their heads when I tell this story. Since many gull species can live over 20 years, I may still be right about my feathered friend.

Toward the end of the summer, the laughing gulls arrive on our local beaches. By the time they get here, most of these black-headed gulls, with their bright red beaks and red legs, have molted much of their black head feathers and taken on their winter look. In this plumage, they have a mostly white head with a black smudge behind the eyes and a dark beak. You can see these medium-sized gulls on our beaches flying gracefully around on long wings or standing in mixed flocks making their distinctive, loud, descending laughing call.

Gulls aren’t going anywhere, so it is best to take the time to admire their amazing adaptation for survival. Also, please do not feed gulls; they will only behave even more brazenly. And remember, they are protected by law, so don’t let them drive you to throwing stones.

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