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Gulls in Vermont

Dear Bird Folks,

I was driving through Vermont the other day when I noticed that there was a flock of seagulls resting a in local field. I may not be a geography expert, but the last time I checked Vermont was nowhere near saltwater. Why would seagulls be so far away from the sea?

-Mitch, Binghamton, NY


Two Things Mitch,

First of all, I am suffering with the flu as I write this. I’m only telling you that because there’s a good chance I won’t be able to finish this before I pass out and you’ll have to make up your own ending. So be ready. The other problem is the “seagull” thing. If you pick up any bird book you won’t find one bird listed as a “seagull” and do you want to know why? There is no such bird. And why is there no such bird? As you have just told us, these birds are not always found by the sea. They can be found hundreds of miles from the nearest saltwater. It is more accurate and less confusing to simply refer to these birds as “gulls” and leave the sea out of it.

Gulls can be found near any large body of water, fresh or saltwater. I guess they could have been called “Watergulls”, but that sounds more like a tropical plant than a bird. They could have also be called the “Aquagulls”, but that would give the impression that they are some kind of super heroes. “Aquagull will save us.” That’s why it’s better to leave the prefix off of it and simply call them gulls.

Over twenty species of gulls can be found in North America. Some gulls are specialized feeders, eating mostly fish, but most gulls are omnivorous. Gulls happily live up to the definition omnivorous by eating just about anything imaginable and sometimes things that aren’t imaginable. The champ in this category is the Herring Gull. There appears to be no food that the ubiquitous Herring Gull won’t eat, earning it the nickname the “Kirstie Alley of the bird world.”

It is their ability to eat just about anything that allows the gulls to live just about anywhere where there is a large body of water. Coastal gulls eat fish, clams, mussels and carrion. People complain about gulls being messy, but gulls also perform an invaluable service by cleaning up the beaches and waterways from stinky dead fish. This past winter a dead and rotting Humpbacked Whale floated into the Town Cove across the street from our shop. Nobody in town wanted to deal with it, but the gulls got right to work. They have been eating on it constantly since it first appeared and should have it totally cleaned up by summer, 2012.

Vermont may not be near any salt water, but it is sandwiched in between to two significant bodies of fresh water, the Connecticut River to the east and Lake Champlain to the west. It is on the tiny isolated islands, in the middle of Lake Champlain, where hundreds of gulls nest each summer. The gulls obtain part of the food that they need from the lake, but they also depend on a true Vermont specialty, bugs. As you have noted Mitch, gulls are more than willing to forage for food in farmer’s fields, searching for crickets and grasshoppers. One of their other favorite foods to find in these fields are mice. We seem to forget how large many Gulls are and how lethal their hefty bill can be. A Herring Gull can easily catch and swallow whole mice or shrews or whatever gets in its way.

Gulls, like most successful species, don’t make their living on one type of food. During the course of a single day a single gull may chow down some fish in the morning, have an afternoon of crickets and field mice, followed by an early supper of french fries and chili dogs from the local parking lot. And if the bird happens to be raising nestlings at the time, then the entire collection of mice, fish, chili dogs and maple syrup (vermont only) is taken to the nest, where it is regurgitated for those lucky baby birds.

Their ability to find food is more of a key to the gull’s prosperity than their proximity to saltwater. And we haven’t mentioned landfills yet. Gulls are by far the best dump pickers ever, especially since my uncle Charlie died.

Hey look Mitch, I made it to end, flu and and all. Maybe I’m not as sick as I thought I was. Still, you probably should wash your hands after reading this, I don’t want you to end up with the flu. You have enough problems being from Binghamton.