Bird Lore: Ring-billed Gull

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The Ring-billed Gull, often mythical in Edmonds, is common in other parts of Snohomish County. This is a gull of more quiet waters, one that does not spend much time on a waterfront as exposed as is that of Edmonds. Nonetheless, a few show up every year, usually as single birds. Seeing more than one is highly unusual along our waterfront. Notwithstanding the scarcity of this gull in Edmonds, birders report them here regularly. Thus, the mythical Ring-billed Gull.

Two other gulls with yellow legs are common in Edmonds, Mew Gulls in winter and California Gulls in summer. A second winter Mew Gull shows a black ring on its yellow bill. So does a third winter California Gull. All three species have black wing tips with white spots. So you have to look at several field marks to distinguish the Ring-billed Gull. The adult bird has a much paler gray mantle, a light eye, a rounded head, and legs as yellow as its shortish bill. The subadults of the two much more common species always have darker gray mantles and dark eyes, among other differences.

A couple of the best places to see Ring-bills Gulls in Snohomish County include Silver Lake and the 10th St. boat ramp at Marine Park in Everett. They can occasionally be seen on Lake Ballinger. This gull generally favors lakes, bays and estuaries such as that of the Snohomish River at Everett, and freshwater as much as saltwater. It is rarely any distance offshore.

The Ring-billed Gull is an omnivore whose diet varies with location and season. Its diet includes fish, insects, earthworms, grains, rodents, and garbage. It can be seen foraging in freshly plowed fields for earthworms and grubs. It may steal food from other birds and will often scavenge in open garbage dumps and places where food scraps are available.

In courtship displays, both birds will stretch upright and alternately face toward and away from each other. The male will feed the female. This species breeds in colonies that sometimes include California and Herring Gulls. The largest breeding areas are in southern Oregon and Idaho and the prairie provinces of Canada. There are other breeding areas in the eastern part of the continent. The nest is located on the ground where there is little vegetation and near water. Both adults built the nest, which is a shallow cup of grasses, moss, and twigs.

Typically, each nest has two to four eggs but there can be as many as eight. Clutches with more than four eggs are the result of two females sharing a nest. Both sexes incubate the eggs for 23-28 days. The hatchlings wander out of the nest by their second day and remain near it. Both adults feed the young and brood them while they are small. The young are not capable of flight until about five weeks of age. They become independent 5-10 days after they can fly.

The Ring-billed Gull migrates in flocks, often following major river systems or coast lines. The oldest Ring-billed Gull of record was 27 years and 6 months when found in New York. There are many collective nouns for all gull species. They include flotilla, gullery, screech, scavenging, and squabble.

In the 1800s, the Ring-billed Gull population nearly succumbed to hunting and habitat loss. Their feathers were used to decorate hats. That situation turned around after this species, along with many others, received protection under the 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (U.S.). The population was again vulnerable in the mid-20th Century due to DDT. Estimates of the global population now range from 1.7 to 3-4 million.

Listen to flight calls of Ring-billed Gulls here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/161500.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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