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Laughing Gulls Love to Eat Flying Ants

Dear Bird Folks,

Please check out the attached video clip. Every year about this time I see Laughing Gulls acting like flycatchers. A large flock of them swoops through the sky appearing to catch insects. Is this typical gull behavior? What could they be catching?

– Michael, Eastham, MA


Two things, Mike,

There are two things I really like about you. First of all, your name is awesome. I’m sure you hear that all the time, but you really do have a great first name. The other thing I like is that you e-mailed me a video clip. How cool is that? I know most folks wouldn’t be excited about receiving a movie featuring gulls eating bugs, but I’m thrilled. (That should tell you how exciting my life is.) In addition, these aren’t just ordinary gulls they are Laughing Gulls, which are one of my favorite birds. Why? Because other birds ignore me, no matter what I say to them. But Laughing Gulls not only listen to me, they laugh at all my jokes. Gotta love a bird like that.

A few weeks ago we wrote about hummingbirds. Hummingbirds eat nectar and tiny insects, and that’s about it. Other birds, such as goldfinches, eat seeds and little else. Gulls aren’t so narrow-minded. If there’s a food source available, they’ll exploit it. They’ll eat fish, dead or alive. They’ll eat bird eggs, bird chicks and adult birds. They’ll also eat disgusting things out of dumpsters, including turkey bologna. (Can you imagine, turkey bologna?) Even rodents aren’t safe from the larger gulls. Last year I received a call from a lady who had a gull eating the chipmunks in her yard. Chipmunks! (No, you can’t hire that gull to deal with the chipmunks in your yard, so don’t ask.) Laughing Gulls aren’t as piggish as some of their larger cousins. While their diet range is still rather impressive, they rarely take other birds’ chicks, aren’t known to eat chipmunks and will only eat turkey bologna if it’s covered with mustard.

For those of you who don’t already know, Laughing Gulls are the handsome black-headed gulls that come to Cape Cod each summer to breed. Their name comes from the raucous “laughing” call they make when they are excited or when they think of something clever I’ve said. They are fairly small gulls, only about half the size of their jumbo cousins, the Great Black-backed Gulls. A Laughing Gull’s diet consists of small fish, snails, horseshoe crab eggs, worms, food scraps, berries and insects. They typically feed during the day, but they’ll sometimes forage after dark, especially during the breeding seaosn when food demand is high, or when they desperately want to get away from their nagging kids for an evening on the town.

Like toads, Laughing Gulls are known to hang around lights at night, feeding on the insects the lights attract. But instead of waiting on the ground like a toad, the gulls swoop around the light picking off insects on the wing. Laughing Gulls are agile flyers and can easily snag flying insects…which brings us to the dramatic event you witnessed, Mike. I know it’s a dramatic event because I have seen the same thing and it’s pretty darn cool.

About five years ago I was in my hammock, having an ice cold Shirley Temple and enjoying a clear, quiet summer’s day when suddenly the sky turned into a feeding frenzy of noisy gulls, terns and assorted other birds. The birds were all feeding on something that was much too small for my eyes to see. What were the birds eating? That’s a great question, but the birds were kind of far away and I was too lazy to get out of my hammock to find out. For years this mystery went unsolved until last year when I got a call from Billy Giroux. Billy is a local character and an amateur naturalist. His is also not nearly as lazy as I am. Billy had just seen a flock of gulls acting like flycatchers, but instead of staying in his hammock, he did a little close-up investigation. He soon discovered that the gulls and other birds were eating, of all things, ants. Yes, ants.

It seems that once a year, usually in the summer, and usually after a period of rain, some species of ants set out to start new colonies. When conditions are favorable these ants take flight, forming large airborne swarms. The cloud of ants can attract a host of avian predators, including Laughing Gulls. The birds have to work quickly though because after a brief period, the ants are gone and things return to normal. It should be pointed out that for the most part these ants are not a problem or a threat to humans. Flying is just the ants’ way of finding a mate. There is no need to run outside with toxic cans of spray. The birds will take care of the ants for us.

In addition to Laughing Gulls, other gulls, including Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls, have also been known to snack on flying ants. It impresses me that the gulls not only have the flying skills needed to capture something as small as a flying ant, but also the birds think the tiny creatures are worth all the effort needed to catch them. I mean, how many ants does it take to make a meal? And can you imagine what an entire meal of ants tastes like? Probably better than turkey bologna.