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Not every gull is a sea gull - June 10, 2013

They have been the bane of beachgoers for years — stealing left out food, making a mess on the family car and squawking loudly to ruin any conversation. I am talking about sea gulls. The black, gray and white menace to anyone trying to enjoy some quiet time on the shore.

The term sea gull is actually a misnomer. There are countless species of gulls that are called sea gulls across the globe, but there is no true “sea gull” species. All gulls are in the laridae family, and within that the majority are in the larus genus — although there are several other genus’, including the rissa, xema and pagophila genus.

The larus genus of gulls encompasses many species; however, there are certain common characteristics that most of the species share. Most gulls in the larus genus are medium to large size, typically with gray or white bodies. Some species will have black, white or gray markings on the head, wings or tail. All larus species have webbed feet for swimming and a stout, simple beak.

Because of our location (an ocean on one side and the nation’s largest estuary on the other), the Delmarva Peninsula is a prime location for gull species. Gulls are commonly associated with the shore, but they are also found inland when the shores and beaches become too cold and windy during the winter.

We have four common species of gulls that are commonly found throughout the Delmarva Peninsula and even across the Chesapeake Bay. The great black-backed gulls are the largest in Maryland and can reach lengths of 28 to 31 inches with a wingspan of about 65 inches. These gulls are yearlong residents of Maryland and nest in the southern parts of the Chesapeake Bay and around Assateague Island and our coastal bays. This species gets its name from its characteristic black back and the sheer size of the gull compared to others in its genus.

Another common gull species found on Delmarva is the herring gull. The herring gull is the species that most people would call a “sea gull.” These gulls are smaller than the great black-backed gulls, only growing to about 22 to 24 inches with a wingspan of about 55 inches. Yearlong residents, they prefer to stay inland during the winter months and head back to the coasts during the spring and summer. Herring gulls nest near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and throughout the coastal bays watershed. The nest is built on the ground with grasses, reeds and feathers and usually contains three eggs per clutch. They build their nests on cliffs, in salt marshes and on unpopulated islands away from human and predator interaction.

Ring-billed gulls are another common gull species found on the shore. Unlike the herring and great black-backed gulls, the ring-billed gull is not a year-round resident in Maryland and does not breed in either the Chesapeake or coastal bays. These smaller gulls, reaching 18 to 20 inches in length, are winter visitors who spend most of their time around places humans frequent, especially at dumps, golf courses, farms and parking lots looking for food. While they visit Maryland in the winter, they nest in the Great Lakes region and in Canada. Ring-billed gulls are named for their distinctive black ring found on the bill of the gulls.

The final most-commonly found gull is the laughing gull. These are some of the smallest gulls commonly found around Delmarva, only growing 15 to 17 inches long, but they are one of the most vocal. These gulls get their name from the loud, raucous “laugh” that they use to communicate and ward off potential predators. Most laughing gulls will stay in Maryland for summer and head south for winter. Occasionally, we have some gulls that will stay through the winter in the coastal bays or the Virginia portion of the bay.

Apart from these four common gulls, there are also many different uncommon gull species that can be seen throughout the Chesapeake and coastal bays. These species include the Bonaparte gull, the Iceland gull and the Glaucous gull.

Most gull species are opportunistic feeders, capable of eating a wide variety of foods. The common gull species found on Delmarva feed on fish, worms, mollusks, insects, crabs, carrion, human refuse and small rodents. Some of the larger gulls, such as the great black-backed and herring gulls, will eat smaller and weaker birds, especially the young and sick. Gulls also love to eat horseshoe crab eggs, which are plentiful in the coastal bays in May and June when many gulls are nesting and breeding.

Despite the average assumption that “sea gulls” are annoying, simple animals, most gull species are very smart and inventive. Gulls have discovered that they can open up crabs and bivalves by picking them up and dropping them on hard surfaces. The gulls have even been able to distinguish man-made objects that have hard surfaces like roads and parking lots, and use those to crack open their shelled prey.

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