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The Trash Gulls You Know, The Seagulls You Don't

If you live near the coast or often visit during the summer months, you are undoubtedly already familiar with the birds known as seagulls. The second you drop a piece of your funnel cake, three of these birds have swooped down to eat it, sometimes so quickly you wonder if the funnel cake even had time to hit the ground. With how adaptable they are to the new environment created over thousands of years of human development, these birds have shifted their behaviors right along with us and still thrive to this day, often to the chagrin of the local business owners and residents of towns who have attempted to keep them away.

Seagulls Flying in Formation

Why are these birds, above all others, succeeding so well at adapting and changing along with us, and how is it that they are seemingly the dominant species of the coastal or waterside environments in almost any region?

Gulls, or seagulls, are a species of bird often found in coastal areas, but some are also found in the central regions of continents, and certain species never even make a single visit to a coast. The Ring-Billed Gull is the main gull species that you can find away from coastal areas, but even Herring gulls, which are the main species found at the shore, make their own migration to inland areas for the breeding season and winter. Seagulls are typically medium to large birds that you will see in almost all United States and Canada regions. Seagulls primarily feed on dead fish and other marine life; they also eat many types of insects and crustaceans. While this is their natural food source, they are foragers and omnivores, eating anything they find. More and more they are focusing on our trash as their food source, allowing them to venture further from their natural environment. We are probably more concerned with the fact that they are eating our trash than the seagulls themselves, since they have the capability to regurgitate anything they cant digest properly. They just shovel anything they can in their beaks and see what sticks.

One other example of their fantastic adaptability is their increasing numbers at the great lakes. At one point, they competed with other waterfowl for resources near the great lakes like any other species, so how is it that they went from being such a rare sight to becoming the most dominant bird species in all of the great lakes over the past 100 years? They adapted to the environment we created, eating fish that became an invasive species to the great lakes from fish farming, eating the bugs that turned out from plowed crops of the nearby farmland, and residing in the numerous landfills that support the growing species.

Seagull Eating Trash

Sadly, the adaptive capabilities of these birds is going to harm them in the long run if we don't take control of our plastic consumption. Studies have shown that around 90% of sea birds have plastic in their stomachs, and many other dangerous materials like glass, metal, and styrofoam have also been found. The fact that they regurgitate inedible material and still scientists have found this level of plastic in birds is a dangerous sign to how plastic is effecting other species that don't have the same adaptations that gulls have.

The nearly 60 species of gulls are native to many regions of the world, including Antarctica and some parts of the Arctic. Seagulls spread across almost every corner of the Earth because of their adaptability to food sources available. Since they need a significant food source and are a migrating species, it is very uncommon to see them on tropical islands. If you visit somewhere like Hawaii, you will be surprised not to see a single seagull on their beaches.

Gulls have also been seen harassing other birds in order to steal their food and preying on smaller bird eggs and chicks when the opportunity arises. Seagulls are a primary factor in population control within coastal ecosystems because they limit the number of small animals like rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, etc., which would otherwise thrive unchecked under natural conditions. They do this because they often compete for the same food sources that these other animals often seek out and the fact that gulls are larger and more robust than most other animals they compete with. Seagulls are very intelligent animals and can work in teams to find food sources, meaning they often have a 'wing up' on other animals. Their intelligence also allows them to determine what humans in urban environments are more likely to share their food scraps, and where to go to find the most human trash.

We consider seagulls a pest species in many human environments because they frequently forage behind restaurants and other establishments, causing damage while feeding on food scraps. While these birds are named 'seagulls', their migratory and reproductive paths take them to central land regions every year. When doing so, other areas they frequent include parking lots near fast food joints, grocery stores, and other areas near dumpsters or where they can find food waste. There is a minimal coastal area that seagulls remain at year-round, but they enjoy being near bodies of water because of the excellent food source there. They have many adaptations that allow them to thrive in these environments. These birds are one of the few rare creatures that can drink salt water, filtering it through special glands they have located above their eyes.

Screaming seagull

The fact that these birds have the skills needed to adapt alongside us makes these birds unappealing to humans. While we may throw fries at them when we see them and encourage the eager scavenging behavior they learned from us, once they expect food from us all the time, we deem them pests. It is a cycle that we should stop since it is unhealthy for both the gulls and for us. If they think they're safe to be close to humans, that spreads more disease than if they kept their distance from us. If we continually encourage them to seek their primary food source from humans and our manufactured habitats instead of nature, they won't get the necessary nutrients to survive and reproduce. They will become even more prone to disease and can cause damage to structures when staying in one spot for too long.

If we stop feeding the gulls, close or block access to trash cans, ensure landfills have bird deterrents installed, and do what we can to ensure these birds don't rely on our garbage for their sustenance, we will see a significant increase in the overall wellbeing of these birds. They won't associate us with their food source and thus will not attempt to approach us while we are on our vacation. These birds are vital to the population control of our coastal environment. If we take them away from that environment and encourage them to continue to live alongside us, as has happened with pigeons, we may see more changes to our coasts than we might like.

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