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Magnetic bearings in birds?

Photo credit: Laurie Dennis

By Tom Dennis

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

This week’s highlighted species in our Blue Water Nature Series, the Ring-billed Gull, the most common gull species found in our area.  The Blue Water area is one of very few places where these birds are found year around so, don’t be too hasty in thinking they are pests as a close look reveals a beautiful creature and a close study will expose some interesting facts.

These gulls (and I remind you that no respectable “birder” would use the common generic misnomer, “seagull”) are found throughout most of North America with the exception of far northern territories of Canada and Alaska.  They are year-round residents only in the southern most areas of the Great Lakes and in inland areas of a few northwestern states.  Most of the population, which numbers about 4 million birds, migrates south to states that are generally south of Michigan and along the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts as far south as Mexico and the Caribbean.   They have completely rebounded from near decimation in the late 19th century when they were hunted for their plumage.     

Ring-billed Gulls are beautiful in breeding plumage when their bright white head, neck, breast, and tail is set off by grey back and wings that also have white-tipped, black primary feathers that fold behind the tail except during flight.  Yellow eyes are outlined with a bright red ring that turns black in non-breeding season when the much of the white plumage includes dark spots.  The yellow bill includes an unmistakable black band giving the bird its common name and the wardrobe is completed with yellow legs and feet.  Young birds of about two years and younger are heavily spotted throughout, have brown in the wings and sport pink legs and a black-tipped pink bill.  These are medium-sized gulls weighing in at about 21 ounces.

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These birds are opportunistic, omnivorous feeders and like many of our friends they like to hang around parking lots and are fast food junkies; in some areas they have been dishonorably dubbed the “fast food gull”.  They are colonial breeders and nest on open ground, preferring islands, however many populations of these birds never see large open water.

Local legend has it that one of these gulls hangs around the Maritime Center at Vantage Point in Port Huron and answers to the name Bill.  This unofficial mascot is always happy to share your fries or leftover donut scraps and will even eat from your hand!  A scientifically proven fact is that young gulls tested at only two days of age showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the proper direction for their fall migration…amazing!

You can learn more about our local birds in person at Winter Bird Blast which will be held on Saturday, February 23, 2019; stay tuned to future articles for more details but be sure to save the date on your calendar. 

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, and naturalist. 

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Tom Dennis is a resident of Fort Gratiot where he and Laurie Melms Dennis, his wife of 45 years, tend to their bird and butterfly friendly gardens. He is a speaker and free-lance writer, passionate birder, advanced master gardener, creation scientist, and naturalist, with degrees from Michigan State University in Zoology and Biology. Tom is an active member of Blue Water Audubon Society, Master Gardeners of St. Clair County, Port Huron Civic Theater, Ross Bible Church, Tapestry Garden Club, Blueways of St. Clair, and is a steward of the Blue Water Riverwalk with Friends of the St. Clair River.

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