Herring Gull

Hey guys, welcome back! We are nearing the end of our waterbirds themed month of February! Today is our second of three gulls in a row; the Herring Gull. These gulls are fairly large sized gulls, noticeably larger than the Ring-billed Gull from last post, but smaller than the Great Black-backed Gull. They are typical for gulls, having a white head and underparts, and light to medium grey back and wings, with black wing tips. You’ll notice the bill is lacking the black ring of the Ring-billed Gull, and is larger proportionately than the Ring-bill’s. The Herring Gull is a rather robustly built gull, looking almost barrel-chested in flight compared to smaller gulls. The yellow bill also has a red spot on the bottom, near the tip; another feature shared by a lot of gull species. It is believed that the red spot is a sort of visual clue for young chicks wanting to be fed. Here’s a brief article about it from Audubon for more.

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Herring Gull enjoying some fresh fish, Liberty State Park, NJ

Gulls can be basically divided into two groups for the purposes of identifiaction: white headed and black headed. We’ll get to black-headed gulls a bit down the road in this blog. The Herring is clearly a white headed gull. Let’s be honest, they all kind of look the same. White bodies, gray backs and wings, yellow bills. How the heck do you tell them apart? Well, range is a big indicator. The Herring Gull is one of the most widespread and common gulls in North American. In the east, it’s going to be about the only gull of this size and color you’ll see with any regularity, out west, ID can be tougher. Here’s a trick; look at the legs. Not something you may immediately think to look at on a bird. I know I didn’t. I’d look at a gull and notice pretty much everything but! I mean they’re just legs! Big deal! Well, not so fast. You’ll notice in my pictures, the Herring Gull has pale, pinkish legs. Now look at a Lesser Black-backed Gull (an infrequent visitor to the east from Europe). Sure, it looks like a Herring Gull, but it has yellow legs!

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Non-breeding Herring Gull, World’s Fair Marina, Flushing, NY

So, now we know that legs are a good thing to look at with gulls. Eyes, and wingtips are good too. On the Pacific coast, the Western Gull is fairly common, and looks very much like the Herring, but where the Herring has pale eyes, the Western has dark eyes. A lot of times in birding, it’s about knowing what to look for!

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Herring Gull, Liberty State Park, NJ

The Herring Gull is like most gulls when it comes to habitat, behavior, food, etc. It’s kind of hard profiling three gulls in a row (yes, next post is another gull!) but that’s what happens when you decide to arrange your life list blog by date seen lol. Herring Gulls eat a variety of food, including gull staples such as crustaceans, urchins, fast food, and, presumably, herring. Also, like a lot of gulls, they may canibalize chicks (even ones from the same colony!) Herring Gulls, like dogs, actually pant when hot! This is done mostly while they are incubating eggs, since they’re unable to cool off in the water while sitting on the nest. Herring Gulls have also been known to use bait when hunting fish. They’ve been recorded dropping bread into the water to attract fish, making it easier to grab lunch. Clever girl!

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First-year Herring Gull, Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Jamaica, NY

Identifying gulls is a challenge, especially ones like the Herring, which can hybridize with other species, adding to the confusion. Juvenile gulls are just as confusing in a lot of ways, but I’m going to save that part of our gull discussion for next time when we tackle one more gull; the largest gull in the world! Until then!

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