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Laughing Gulls Are Common on Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

My son was in the Wendy’s parking lot in Orleans a few days ago, feeding French fries to a small gull with a red beak.  Is that an unusual bird for this area?

– Chuck, Truro, MA


Hold the phone, Chuck,

Did I read your note correctly? Did you say your son was feeding gulls “French fries”? That’s a little hard to believe. I mean, since when does a gull eat French fries? What’s next? Mice eating cheese? Monkeys eating bananas? I’m not sure where I was going with that, but it reminds me of a story. Back when I was a kid, I gave our family dog some scraps off my dinner plate. My mother quickly scolded me saying, “Table food isn’t good for dogs.” Even at my young age I couldn’t help wondering – if the food on my plate wasn’t good enough for the dog, why was she feeding it to me? That should tell you something about how I ranked in my family. The dog’s wellbeing came before mine…and not much has changed since.

During the course of the year, a dozen different gull species may be seen around Cape Cod. Out of those twelve, only three of them regularly breed here. We have the rather large Herring Gull and its cousin, the even larger Great Black-backed Gull. But except for a small spot near the tip, both of those birds have yellow beaks. But the gull your son saw had a “red beak,” right? Hmm. I wonder if the gull’s beak was merely covered in ketchup after eating all those fries. Could that be it? No, I’m just teasing you. The bird your son saw at Wendy’s is the Cape’s third species of breeding gull, the Laughing Gull, which does indeed have a red, ketchup-colored beak. In addition to red beaks, Laughing Gulls are fairly small by gull standards and have distinctive black heads. They are also my very favorite gulls. Most folks probably don’t have a favorite gull, but if they did, it might be this one…just based on its awesome name alone.

Each spring, usually towards the end of dreary March, my day is brightened when I hear the energetic sounds of the returning Laughing Gulls. As their name implies, Laughing Gulls are named after their maniacal, laugh-like calls, which they do incessantly. They call in order to stay in touch with each other, or when they see danger or when they spot something exciting, like a guy handing out French fries at Wendy’s.

Are Laughing Gulls “unusual” for this area? No, they aren’t. But they used to be. Back around the time of the Civil War, Laughing Gulls were happily breeding in a large colony on Nantucket’s Muskeget Island. But then commercial eggers discovered the colony and soon many of the gull eggs were turned into omelets. With no thought towards the future, the egg hunters quickly reduced the population to just a few birds. The outlook for Laughing Gulls in Massachusetts appeared to be grim, but then in 1923, the keeper of the island’s lifesaving station (of all people) stepped in and protected the gulls. His efforts (I assume the keeper was a “his,” but don’t quote me), combined with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saved the birds and slowly their numbers began to rebound. That’s the good news. But the Migratory Bird Treaty Act also protected the larger Herring Gulls and Herring Gulls have been known the make meals out of Laughing Gull eggs and chicks (much like the eggers did). Over the coming decades the nesting population of Laughing Gulls once again faced a steady decline. Then, to make things even worse, a 1972 hurricane (Carrie, I believe) washed away their Muskeget Island breeding area. (That was nearly forty-five years ago and the poor birds are still waiting to hear from FEMA.)

Without Muskeget, the birds had to find someplace new to breed. At first, they tried Monomoy, but the larger gulls were a problem there as well. Next, many of them moved to New Island, which is here in the big town of Orleans and I really loved that. The yappy birds were constantly flying over my shop, which meant any time I told a joke, even a bad joke (like that would ever happen), I was guaranteed to hear a laugh. Unfortunately for the gulls (and me), winter storms and shifting sands eventually connected New Island to Nauset Beach, allowing land predators (foxes, skunks and pets) access to the island. The birds had to move yet again. Today, most of our estimated 1,800 Laughing Gull couples either breed on Plymouth Beach or on South Monomoy. But that doesn’t mean we have to drive to Plymouth or swim to Monomoy to see them. Laughing Gulls regularly travel many miles in search of food, and thus can be spotted just about anywhere on the Cape. What do they eat, besides French fries, you ask? Like most gulls, Laughing Gulls aren’t fussy eaters. They will consume just about anything they find, including fish, horseshoe crab eggs, berries and even small mammals. They also have the ability to catch food on the wing. Several times I’ve seen Laughing Gulls acting like swallows, plucking insects out of mid-air…while still laughing the entire time.

Finally about giving French fries to birds: This may sound strange coming from a guy who sells bird food for a living, but feeding gulls is not encouraged, especially if it’s fries. It’s like filling your feeder with white bread. It supplies the birds with calories, but the wrong calories. Besides, if your son has extra French fries he wants to get rid of, I’ll take them off his hands. I don’t mind the wrong calories. Heck, I even eat food unfit for dogs.