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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Though 19 species of gulls appear in Minnesota, only 3 breed and nest here

In Minnesota, colonies of ring-billed, herring, and Franklin’s gulls breed and nest on secluded islands and shores of certain lakes and wetlands. The enormous Lake of the Woods offers preferred nesting habitat for herring gulls, while the Franklin’s gull, a species of special concern in Minnesota, nests within a few prairie marshes of the state.

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A flock of ring-billed gulls feeds along the shoreline of Lake Bemidji near Diamond Point Park.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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On my canoe trip to Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve last month, I observed a handful of wild birds for the very first time. Two species of gulls and a species of tern were among them.

Around 27 species of gulls occur in North America. Another 18 species of gull-like birds — terns and skimmers — also occur.

Worldwide there are 52 species of gulls, yet, despite there being 19 species appearing in Minnesota, only three species of gull breed and nest here: ring-billed, Franklin’s and herring gulls. And of the tern species, black, Bonaparte’s, Caspian, common and Forster’s can be observed in Minnesota.

Those species that I observed in Katmai included glaucous-winged gull, short-billed gull, and the Arctic tern, of which the latter species is known as a champion of migration. Though hard to fathom, Arctic terns breed and nest in the Arctic Circle and winter in the Antarctic Circle. These small birds’ annual, round-trip migration is almost 19,000 miles!

According to the Minnesota DNR website, “Gulls are medium to large sized birds that are typically white or gray in color, often bearing black markings on their wings and/or heads.”

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Indeed, except for species of black-backed gulls and black-headed gulls, most gulls are very similar in appearance. In fact, some gulls hybridize with each other, which not only complicates positive identification but also proves that gulls are very closely related.

The website further describes, “Other physical characteristics include webbed feet and long, stout beaks. Most are members of the genus Larus, in the family Laridae, and are closely related to terns, also in the Laridae family, but of the genus Sterna.

"Many members of the genus are carnivorous birds, eating both live and dead prey items. Some are also cannibalistic, eating the eggs and young of others of their species. Being highly resourceful and opportunistic in their search for food, they often obtain it through kleptoparasitism (stealing food from other species).”

Of this behavior, kleptoparasitism, gulls are both renowned and reviled. Undeniably, as the DNR concluded, “Many humans can testify to this trait, as gulls will even harass people in their persistent attempts to steal, or beg tidbits. They will also take advantage of other resources provided by humans, including trash from landfills and residential areas, and stored forage or fruit/grain crops in agricultural settings.”

When I conducted my master’s wildlife research project in North Dakota, I once watched in amazement as a group of swimming American white pelicans worked together to herd tiger salamander larvae into a shallow bay of a wetland. The pelicans swam together in a line, side-by-side, while the water boiled in front of them from fleeing salamanders. Meanwhile, dozens of vocalizing, flying gulls followed closely above the pelicans.

Then, in an incredible display of predation, the pelicans began gorging themselves with squirming salamanders and filling their pouches and throats with the amphibians.

And all those gulls? The resourceful birds began diving from the sky to snatch hapless salamanders from not only the surface of the water but from the very pouches and beaks of the pelicans. In utter chaos, I watched the gulls take advantage of the pelicans’ labor and steal meals from them.

And the target of the gulls’ kleptoparasitism wasn’t necessarily relegated to just pelicans. For even when a gull was successful at snatching a salamander from a luckless pelican, other gulls would immediately begin assaulting the “lucky” gull.

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As a gull would frantically fly away with a dangling salamander gripped tightly in its beak, other gulls would chase and try to seize the salamander away. Quite often the pursuer became the victor, only to become the victim as yet another gull would succeed in stealing the thief’s stolen meal.

In Minnesota, colonies of ring-billed, herring, and Franklin’s gulls breed and nest on secluded islands and shores of certain lakes and wetlands. The enormous Lake of the Woods offers preferred nesting habitat for herring gulls, while the Franklin’s gull, a species of special concern in Minnesota, nests within a few prairie marshes of the state.

Black terns can be observed nesting on wetlands and other aquatic habitats throughout the state.

So, calling these special birds seagulls and you would be wrong. For sure, gulls are gulls with individual, unique names, characteristics and places where they can be observed and appreciated, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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