People Don't See 'Seagulls'

Feb 06, 2008, 00:00 ET from Pennsylvania Game Commission

    HARRISBURG, Pa., Feb. 6 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The following is by
 Joe Kosack, Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist, Pennsylvania Game
     As the air turns cold, they trickle into the state, particularly along
 the Susquehanna, Delaware and Ohio rivers. Then they branch out to
 everything from unfrozen lakes and agricultural fields to parking lots and
 landfills. Most people call them seagulls. But don't, because, according to
 the Pennsylvania Game Commission, they are not.
     Even though Webster's recognizes the word seagull, as "a gull
 frequenting the sea," and as a word that has been in use since the late
 sixteenth century, it's just not a word that people are supposed to use
 when referring to gulls, primarily because Pennsylvania doesn't have a
 nearby "sea" from which the birds would have come. There are gulls that
 qualify elsewhere in the world, just not in Pennsylvania. Birders prefer
 the word "gull" in all cases; they don't seesaw on word usage, even if the
 gulls inhabit seaside areas.
     In urban slang, the word "seagull" refers to a person who will do
 anything for food, or someone who glides around the office doing nothing.
 Although both are not exactly complimentary references, they do sort of
 describe the gull lifestyle. The birds really do fly around -- seemingly
 aimlessly -- looking for food and capitalizing on it wherever and however
 it presents itself.
     "Gulls will eat just about anything edible served hot, cold or frozen,"
 said Dan Brauning, who supervises the Game Commission's Wildlife Diversity
 Section. "They like fast food, dead fish, waste grain, even stuff that just
 looks like food. Presentation isn't important. All that matters is
 accessibility and acquisition."
     Richard Bach, author of the 1970 best-selling book "Jonathan Livingston
 Seagull," understood what mattered most to these compulsive birds. He
 wrote, "For most gulls, it's not flying that matters, but eating." And,
 basically, that's what brings them to Pennsylvania's interior: food.
     Seeing gulls so far from the Atlantic Coast, Lake Erie or the
 Chesapeake Bay seems odd to most people. They seem to be fish out of water,
 birds out of place. After all, next to migrating snowy owls or snow geese,
 there's really nothing else with feathers that's so starkly pale in our
     "Most people think of gulls inhabiting beaches and along boardwalks and
 docks," Brauning said. "So when they see them dumpster diving at Central
 Pennsylvania fast-food joints, hanging with Canada geese in agricultural
 fields, or teaming in the open spaces of busy mall parking lots, they don't
 get what's going on.
     "But it's really not complicated. These birds are here to eat and
 winter. If they could do it somewhere else, closer to their nesting
 grounds, and at a place that provided sufficient food, they probably would
 be there. They don't necessarily prefer Pennsylvania as much as they take
 advantage of its convenience."
     Pennsylvania is sandwiched geographically between the Atlantic Coast
 and the Great Lakes - two substantial gull population centers - and the
 state's rivers and land uses have always drawn the birds into the state's
     Although a good number of the gulls you see now are transients passing
 through Pennsylvania as they migrate to wintering areas, most are here to
 forage for food. They are seasonal residents, leaving for big water areas
 to nest in the spring and rear young in the summer, and returning to the
 Commonwealth as winter tightens its grip on the Northeast.
     Gulls zero in on areas where food is readily accessible and where open
 areas - particularly parking lots and farm fields - afford them protection
 from predators. They prefer to huddle in areas where they can see danger
 approaching from a considerable distance and use every available eye in the
 group to monitor the surrounding open space. The hint of trouble draws
 considerable attention.
     "Gulls are intelligent birds and adapt to civilized settings quickly,"
 Brauning said. "They're every bit as adept as raccoons and black bears at
 seizing opportunities to score food and willing to tolerate the presence
 and inconveniences of cars and people to work an area. Sometimes, in fact,
 they even seem a little disrespectful of people because they allow us to
 get so much closer than other wild birds, or force you to brake while they
 dissect litter."
     Although a variety of gulls pass through Pennsylvania during spring and
 fall migrations, only a few spend winter here. Ring-billed and herring
 gulls are the most common. Two others that come or stopover for prolonged
 periods are the great black-backed gull, which are common along the
 Delaware River and Lake Erie shore, and Bonaparte's gull, along the Lake
 Erie shore and in northwestern counties. There's also always a chance to
 catch an Iceland gull mingling with our regular winter guests, particularly
 herring gulls; but that can be difficult, like trying to find a diamond in
 a glass recycling bin.
     Ring-billed gulls are America's and Pennsylvania's most widespread
 gulls. They weren't always as common as they are now in-state. In fact,
 back in the late 1800s, the Commonwealth had more herring gulls. Today,
 however, ring-billed gulls are just everywhere there are large open spaces
 and big water. Herring gulls also are fairly common, but they don't stray
 as far from large bodies of water or rivers. Both gulls are year-round
 residents in some areas of the state.
     Gulls come to Pennsylvania because it's convenient, and because it has
 rivers that are loaded with small aquatic critters they eat readily,
 hundreds of restaurants that serve fast food indirectly to gulls, and
 plenty of parking lots to loaf in. It's not exactly Florida, but it sure
 beats panhandling along the icy Atlantic Coast or the shores of Lake Erie.
     Although gulls occasionally test the tolerance of some people when they
 soil property with droppings or become aggressive while foraging, most
 people seem to be ok with them. But, even if they weren't, state and
 federal laws protect them.
     "Gulls and their antics have grown on many Pennsylvanians," Brauning
 said. "They enjoy watching the birds while they're out and about, partly
 because they're so visible and entertaining and partly because the gulls
 seem so out of place here.
     "Seeing a gull shuffle across a parking area, calling or yawning, even
 sleeping with its bill tucked under its wing, sparks interest and
 attention, and on cold days, even compassion for these resilient birds.
 Their seasonal presence continues to attract considerable curiosity and
 probably will for some time."
     Gulls appear to be right at home in Pennsylvania's heartland, even
 though they're not. Every spring they leave Pennsylvania's interior,
 although some will stay along Lake Erie and the lower Susquehanna and
 Delaware rivers and their tributaries. But just remember, those that go are
 not going back to the sea. And they're not seagulls. Suggesting otherwise
 infers gullibility. And who would want to do that?
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     Jerry Feaser

SOURCE Pennsylvania Game Commission