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Outdoors column: Minnesota gulls come in three species

A herring gull, one of three gull species found in Minnesota. Photo by Derek Bakken.

Every once in awhile I need to think about whether or not there exists a Minnesota wild bird or critter that I haven't written about at least once. It turns out that there are several, of course, although many of them get honorable mentions without necessarily being the feature subject of any given column.

In looking at past columns, there appears to be one rather obvious wild bird that I've never written about: namely gulls, sometimes erroneously called "sea gulls." You see, nowhere in any field guidebook anywhere does there exist a "sea gull." Every species of every gull on the planet is known as something other than just plain "sea gull."

Twenty-seven species of gulls occur in North America (another 18 species of gull-like birds — terns and skimmers — also occur). Worldwide there are 52 species of gulls, yet, despite there being 19 species occurring from time to time in Minnesota, only three species actually breed and nest here: ring-billed, Franklin's, and herring gulls.

I remember as a boy on our Otter Tail County dairy farm when flocks of gulls followed me around while I pulled plows and disks with the tractor in various fields each spring.

Looking back, I have no idea what species they were, but they were likely either herring or ring-billed gulls, or possibly even a mixture of the two species. In any case, I was always happy to have them near while I drove that old M Farmall around and around the fields.

The gulls would fly effortlessly above and behind me, but mostly they'd land on the freshly worked-up soil to feed on soft-bodied insects and other morsels they could find.

The Minnesota DNR website explains that, "Gulls are medium to large sized birds that are typically white or gray in color, often bearing black markings on their wings and/or heads."

Indeed, with the exception of species of black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls, most gulls are very similar in appearance. In fact some gulls hybridize with each other, which not only complicates positive identification, but also proves that gulls are very closely related.

The DNR further describes: "Other physical characteristics include webbed feet and long, stout beaks. Most are members of the genus Larus, in the family Laridae, and are closely related to terns, also in the Laridae family, but of the genus Sterna. Many members of the genus are carnivorous birds, eating both live and dead prey items. Some are also cannibalistic, eating the eggs and young of others of their species. Being highly resourceful and opportunistic in their search for food, they often obtain it through kleptoparasitism (stealing food from other species)."

Of this behavior, kleptoparisitism, gulls are both renowned and reviled. Undeniably, as the DNR concluded, "Many humans can testify to this trait, as gulls will even harass people in their persistent attempts to steal, or beg tidbits. They will also take advantage of other resources provided by humans, including trash from landfills and residential areas, and stored forage or fruit/grain crops in agricultural settings."

If you've ever visited Canal Park in Duluth or Disney World in Orlando, you can attest the hordes of gulls harassing and mobbing visitors for crumbs of popcorn or bits of bread and irritating anyone nearby so unfortunate to find themselves in the middle of feeding frenzies of loud and ravenous birds.

Humans aren't necessarily the only organisms subject to gulls' kleptoparisitic tendencies. When I conducted my wildlife research work in North Dakota, I once watched in fascination as a pod of American white pelicans worked together in herding tiger salamander larvae into a shallow bay of a wetland. The pelicans swam together in a line, side-by-side and in unison, while the water boiled in front of them from fleeing salamanders as dozens of screaming, flying gulls followed closely above.

In an amazing display of predation, the pelicans began gorging themselves with squirming salamanders and filling their pouches and throats with the amphibians.

Meanwhile, the resourceful gulls, not to be outdone or outsmarted, dove from the sky and snatched hapless salamanders from not only the surface of the water, but from the very pouches and beaks of the pelicans!

So many gulls were present and so deafening were their vocalizations that the whole scene, as chaotic and maddening as it was, was simultaneously fascinating as I watched the gulls take advantage of the pelicans' labor and steal meals from them.

And the target of the gulls' kleptoparisitism wasn't necessarily relegated to just pelicans. For even when a gull was successful at snatching a salamander from a luckless pelican, other gulls would immediately begin assaulting the "lucky" gull! As a gull would frantically fly away with a dangling salamander gripped tightly in its beak, other gulls would chase and try to seize the salamander away. Quite often the pursuer became the victor, only to become the victim as yet another gull would succeed in stealing the thief's stolen meal!

In Minnesota, colonies of ring-billed, herring, and Franklin's gulls breed and nest on secluded islands and shores of certain lakes and wetlands. Lake of the Woods offers preferred nesting habitat for herring gulls, while the Franklin's gull, a species of special concern in Minnesota, nests within a few prairie marshes of the state.

Call them sea gulls or call them lake gulls and you would be wrong. For sure, gulls are gulls replete with unique names, characteristics, and places where they're found, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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