Brooklyn Bird Watch: Ring-billed Gull

No matter where they are, Gulls and Terns can make a lot of noise. In today’s excellent Heather Wolf photo of a Ring-billed Gull in Brooklyn Bridge Park, this Ring-bill appears to be screaming about something. 

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology calls the Ring-billed Gull an “acrobat of the air” as they skillfully snatch tossed food scraps from the air while flying. “These birds are comfortable around humans and frequent parking lots, garbage dumps, beaches, and fields, sometimes by the hundreds. A black band encircling the yellow bill helps distinguish the adult Ring Bills from other gulls.”

If you’ve ever watched a golf tournament on TV and seen a gull walk up to a golf ball that had just rolled to a stop, pick up the ball in its beak, and fly off, then you have witnessed something that is apparently part of this bird’s DNA. Cornell states: “Some nests of the Ring-billed Gull at study sites in California and Oregon contained pebbles the size and shape of gull eggs. The parents apparently pulled the pebbles into their nests from the surrounding ground, mistaking them for eggs gone astray.”

I imagined a sports psychologist suggesting to a frustrated, recreational golfer having a bad day on the golf course, just think of those bad shots as a Ringed-bill Gull might, as just “eggs gone astray”; then it might help to calm their temper long enough to reconsider throwing that $450 driver into the nearest lake.

Several interesting things about this gull are: Many Ring-billed Gulls return to breed at the colony where they hatched. Once they have bred, they are likely to return to the same breeding spot each year, often nesting within a few meters of the last year's nest site. 

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Although it is considered a typical large white-headed gull, the Ring-billed Gull has been known to hybridize with smaller black-headed species, which includes the Laughing Gulls. 

Migrating Ring-billed Gulls apparently use a built-in compass to navigate. When tested at only two days of age, chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration.

“Seagull” is the common name for any species belonging to the Laridae family. Although the commonly used term “seagull” is a general reference, there is no species called “seagull.” Nevertheless, there are 54 species of gull and they are abundant worldwide. Wikipedia says that in the late 19th century, the Ring-billed gull was hunted for its plumage. The Ring-bill has rebounded and is probably the most common gull in North America. A 2021 study suggested that it was the 3rd most common bird in the world with an estimated population of 1.2 billion.

Gulls are very inquisitive, intelligent, and resourceful birds. Like crows, they are also known to exhibit what’s called “tool-use” behavior. A gull will use a piece of bread to bait a goldfish. Colonies of gulls will use mob behavior to attack and harass an intruder. They can also be impressively fearless, attacking whales and taking a bite of flesh as the giant mammals surface from deep waters.

The gull species is found on every continent, including Antarctica. They’re the most prolific and widespread family of birds in the world. “Gulls are at home no matter where they are.” On the west coast of Central Florida, our most common gull is the “Laughing Gull” (a gull that the Ring-Bill will “hybridize” with). Here is a shot of a juvenile “Laughing Gull” about to take off from a railing on Clearwater Pier.  

A juvenile Laughing Gull. Photo: Joseph Palmer

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