Flathead Valley gulls: ‘Bring it on’

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  • Herring gull. (Laura Frazier photo)

  • 1

    California gull. (Kevin McGowan photo)

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    Ring billed gull. (Scott Kinsey photo)

  • Herring gull. (Laura Frazier photo)

  • 1

    California gull. (Kevin McGowan photo)

  • 2

    Ring billed gull. (Scott Kinsey photo)

The gull just might be the Rodney Dangerfield of birds.

The physiques of many species lean more toward barrel-chested than sleek. Plumage tends toward bland: Picture white and black and 50 shades of grey without the hijinks.

A gull’s cawing, croaking and screams are a far cry from the melodious whistles and warbles of a western meadowlark.

Gulls hang out in parking lots. They seem to loaf there like shiftless teens. As “opportunistic foragers,” they eat just about anything. Ring-billed gulls, in particular, haunt landfills and shopping malls. Scavenging gulls gleefully pirate food from each other.

All these facts stick in the craw of those who prefer birds with loftier lifestyles.

In addition, identifying gull species can befuddle fledgling birders because plumages can vary at different stages in a bird’s life and because occasional breeding between species yields hybrids.

Herring gulls “vary considerably across the Northern Hemisphere, and this, combined with their tendency to hybridize with other gull species, causes headaches in both taxonomy and identification,” reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Thus, going gulling can be galling.

Dr. Pete Fisher, a pathologist in his day job in Kalispell but a dedicated birder in his spare time, said he sometimes encounters resistance when he speaks to birders and announces his intended topic for the evening.

“I’ll say, ‘We’re going to talk about gulls tonight.’ And there’s a big groan,” Fisher said.

Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, agreed that identifying gulls can be challenging. He described this specific birding pursuit as an acquired taste.

“For people who really like to do gulls, the gulls are sort of like single malt scotches,” McGowan said.

According to the National Audubon Society and others, the three most common gull species encountered in the Flathead Valley are California gulls, ring-billed gulls and herring gulls. Several other species have been identified, Audubon reported.

Gulls can be spotted on Flathead Lake and along streams and sloughs. They can be seen scrabbling for French fries in a McDonald’s parking lot or dining at the county dump. They sometimes hover overhead while farmers plow fields, turning up grubs and insects.

Fisher believes one reason gulls, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect is the tendency of some species to forage in landfills.

“People see them eating garbage,” he said. “They see a bird adapted to human habitat and think that’s kind of gross.”

The birds’ natural menu can include small fish, crustaceans, worms, beetles, dragonflies, rodents and grain.

Ring-billed gulls have been known to eat cherries, a seasonal dish readily available around Flathead Lake.

Both Fisher and McGowan described gulls as intelligent birds.

McGowan said gulls, like the crows he has long studied, can come to recognize people by their faces.

McGowan has seen herring gulls in flight drop items — including discarded tennis balls that sometimes bob in a backwater stretch of Cayuga Lake near Ithaca, New York — and then swoop down and retrieve them.

Are the gulls playing or practicing life sustaining skills?

McGowan said it could be both. Just like humans who focus on honing athletic skills, improving coordination can enhance survival, he said.

“Does play have function? Sure it does,” McGowan said.

In Montana, the western meadowlark is the state bird.

In Utah, the California gull reigns.

Mormon lore credits the medium-sized gull with a providential intervention in 1848 that beat back a pestilence destroying the crops of vulnerable pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley.

Specifically, some accounts of that spring reported that hordes of crickets (actually katydids) were devouring corn, beans, wheat, pumpkins, squash and other crops.

Then, large flocks of California gulls winged in from Salt Lake and began gorging on the insects. At the time, some observers concluded the birds were heaven sent.

If the California gull has performed heroic acts driven by divine intervention in the Flathead Valley, the birds have received scant credit.

Other gull species with reported sightings in the Flathead Valley include: mew gull, glaucous-winged gull, Iceland gull, lesser black-backed gull and Bonaparte’s gull.

Fisher said he enjoys the gulls in the Flathead Valley and admires how they have adjusted to the profound habitat changes wrought by Euro-American settlers.

“I appreciate gulls because of their adaptability,” Fisher said. “They’re a native bird just making the most of the hand they’ve been dealt.

“The gulls are like, ‘You’re going to give me this habitat? Well, bring it on.’”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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