To prepare my students for careers in conservation, I provide knowledge of big concepts as well as small details.
One category of “small details” is proper terminology and I focus most of my attention on teaching them terms the average person gets wrong. This is an easy way for them to distinguish themselves at a job interview, public presentation or in any other setting where they wish to be seen as professionals. For example, I am adamant that the headgear on deer are always called antlers not horns, that the terms rabbit and hare are not used interchangeably and that there is no such thing as a seagull.
The term gull refers to any of the 52 or so species of birds in the Family Laridae. Many do spend a portion of their lives along the ocean, making “seagull” a perfectly logical term for them. But what about the gulls we see around here? Should we call them “lakegulls?” I grew up in Irondequoit. Were the birds of my childhood “baygulls?” If so, are they best served with cream cheese?
The confusion around gulls doesn’t stop with their names. The gulls that are common in the Finger Lakes take several years before they reach adult plumage. That means a multi-age flock of say, ring-billed gulls, could be easily confused for a mixed species flock since there would be obvious differences in the birds’ appearance. In fact, ring-billed gulls do not even obtain the ring on their bill until their second year.
There are three species of gull that are common in the Finger Lakes. The ring-billed gull is the most common and smallest of the three. Ring-billed gulls are medium-sized (similar in length to a crow) with adults showing a light gray back and the eponymous ring on their bill is diagnostic when present. It takes three years for ring-billed gulls to obtain adult plumage. Adult birds have yellow legs which can help distinguish this species from the second most common species in the Finger Lakes, the herring gull.
Herring gulls are larger than ring-bills and are less numerous here. They sport the same light gray back as the ring-bills but have pinkish legs and a red spot on the lower bill rather than a ring. The red dot is called a gonydeal spot and has a fascinating purpose. Adult gulls will bring food back to their nest in their stomachs. When a gull nestling sees the red spot on the adult bird, it instinctively pecks at it. That stimulates the adult to regurgitate the meal of fish or other prey.
The third species of gull that is common to the Finger Lakes is the largest of the three and, in fact, is the largest species of gull in the world. The great black-backed gull is substantially larger than the two species discussed above. With a five-and-a-half foot wingspan supporting a five-pound weight, this gull can be confused with a bald eagle at a distance. Adults share the same red gonydeal spot as the herring gull.
Winter is a great time to do some gull watching here in the Finger Lakes. All three of these species should be expected with a few less common gulls possible, especially on the larger Seneca and Cayuga lakes. Lake Ontario provides additional winter opportunities, with serious birders making the trek to Niagara Falls for the best chances to see numerous gull species. Eighteen species of gulls have been recorded there, although some only a handful of times.
Many species of gulls have adapted well to the changes humans bring to the environment. Their natural habit of scavenging is translated to picking through dumpsters or landfills. Their traditional fondness for open spaces such as lakes (frozen or not) draws them to rooftops and parking lots. Humans heap scorn on these birds, calling them “sky rats” or “dump chickens.” Instead, we should marvel at their ability to thrive in the radically modified habitats we create. Gulls deserve our respect and that begins simply with the small detail of referring to them by their proper name.
Van Niel, an environmental conservation professor at Finger Lakes Community College, lives in Seneca Falls and enjoys exploring wildlife around the world as well as in his own backyard. If you have comments or questions, VanNiel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.