Some people occasionally question what all these “seagulls” are doing around here.
What they may not recognize is that a great many gulls live and die without ever visiting one of our coasts. They never set their beady little eyes on an ocean.
Most are interior birds and, therefore, only legitimately can be called gulls. The sea doesn’t figure into their lifestyle or habitat.
That is true for some species more than others. It is quite true for our predominant gull, the ring-billed gull. Chances are great that when you observe one or two or a couple of hundred gulls hereabouts, you are seeing ring-billed gulls.
The ring-bill is a crow-sized waterbird that often is but doesn’t have to be associated with some sort of waterway. To those of us who aren’t much attuned to gulls, the ring-billed gull probably looks like a generic. But there are specifics.
A ring-bill is about two feet in length, give or take two or three inches. In flight it looks even bigger, boasting a wingspread that can stretch to nearly four feet.
This basic bird in adult plumage is squeaky clean white with some light gray shading on its mid-back and lower. There is some black plumage on its wingtips, which shows up back along its tail with wings folded at rest.
If you are near enough to see, a ring-billed gull has yellowish eyes, legs and bill. That beak, however, is marked with a wrapping of black band, a feature from which the species’ name is derived. Biologists say the purpose of that black ring seems to be that it gives young chicks a target at which to peck when a mother gull returns to the nest to feed her young hatchlings.
When adult ring-bills are of full breeding age, they sport that snowy white head. If they are a little shy of being active reproducers, even these adults with have a little bit of tan to gray streaking or speckling on the back of the head and down the back of the neck.
Regardless of where ring-billed gulls rank in breeding readiness, we will not have any of that foolishness going on here.
Breeding territories for ring-bills are spread across the northern tier of American states and well into Canada. There are no nesting colonies of these gulls in Kentucky or anywhere nearby.
What appears locally are migratory ring-bills of mixed ages during the winter. On toward spring and summer, what will remain will be juvenile and non-breeding young adults.
Ring-billed gulls in our region are just here to hang-out, feed on the abundance of our habitats and, in the case of juveniles and sub-adults, grow toward their ultimate mission of making more ring-billed gulls.
In regard to propagating themselves, ring-bills have done that handily. Way back in the early 1900s, these gulls among others fell into major decline, their very existence threatened, in large part because they were killed by market hunters for their plumage.
Migratory bird protection eventually put an end to that, but decades later the exploitation was not overcome.
These gulls later got a boost when the pesticide DDT was banned, and the gradual elimination of the chemical from the ecosystem saw improved reproduction in bald eagles, other raptors, shorebirds and various egg-laying species, including ring-bills.
Nowadays, the continental population of ring-billed gulls has been estimated at about 1.7 million. They are not a species of concern as of late.
Mankind once nearly quashed ring-bills, but some of their present prosperity is also the result of civilization’s expansion. It is a matter of habitat.
Ring-billed gulls are primarily fish eaters that find themselves at home around rivers, lakes and ponds in our nation’s interior. The development of our lock and dam systems and reservoir creations on our riverways have created super habitats for these gulls. Even now, some of the best gull concentrations in our region are to be found around our big lakes and big rivers area, especially around the tailwaters of Kentucky Dam and Barkley Dam. To a gull, it doesn’t get much better than that.
But gulls are opportunistic feeders, and what is available is often what’s for dinner. They are known to eat things like insects and small rodents along with fish, but they also have come to relish what humans cast aside. Ring-bills think garbage is just great.
Some sources say a more southerly expansion of ring-billed gulls’ nesting territories is a result of more accessible landfills and refuse operations where the birds can continually scavenge food.
The gulls don’t even need big garbage consolidations to enjoy boosted food options. Instead of gathering by the hundreds at a landfill, they fan out and appear by the dozens around parking lots of big box stores and fast-food restaurants.
It sounds like a joke, but it is said that one of the primary foods of ring-billed gulls nowadays is French fries.
Do you want fries with that? Gulls do. If they have the fries, in fact, they seem to need little else.
If we lived by the sea, we almost certainly would have gulls engaging in coastal behavior. While we do not live along the ocean, we still have gulls, mostly ring-billed gulls, and they live and do what is most appropriate for their local circumstances.
Indeed, our ring-bills are much closer to being parking lot gulls than seagulls here and in these times.