Seagulls— they’ve become our constant companions while living here at the beach. You see them flying overhead, perching on posts or streetlights, standing alongside the breaking surf, bickering amongst themselves, stealing food from each other, pecking at trash bags on trash day, squawking, chasing each other, and when you sit on a bench, landing around you and approaching you with furtive eyes hoping for morsels of food. Indeed, they are part of the ambience of living-at-the-beach.
Seagulls are common on the entire New Zealand coastline. The two main seagull’s names are easy enough to remember. They are the black-backed gull and the red-billed gull. “Easy as,” one might say here.
And that is exactly how they look. The black-backed gull has a black back, and the red-billed gull has a red bill. Got it?
The black-backed gull (Larus dominicanus dominicanus) is the larger of the two, and the most common seagull throughout New Zealand. This is a big gull about 50 cm (20 inches) in length with a wingspan twice that length. Adult birds have white heads and bodies and black backs. Their bills are yellow. They are native to New Zealand but also found in and around the coasts of South America and Australia.
The juvenile birds are dark mottled brown in color with black bills and legs, and this sometimes leads them to be mistaken for another bird species (the ‘mollymawk’). Over three year’s time, the black-backed juvenile’s plummage becomes lighter until they reach adulthood.
Black-backed gulls nest in colonies and can live up to 28 years. The black-back, as it is commonly called, is found both on the coasts and also inland being particularly attracted to any location where there is food including fish processing plants, farms and landfills. Because of this and the associated behavior, some people actually consider the black-backed gull a nuisance or at least have mixed feelings toward them, calling them scavengers, pirates, predators and plunderers. Black-backed gulls eat virtually anything including new-born lambs and sick sheep and kill and eat other birds and their eggs—including those of their own species! This adaptability has perhaps, in part, led to the black-backed gull having one noteworthy distinction: it is one of only two native birds in New Zealand NOT offered any environmental protection.
But despite any negative press, when standing motionless alone or in groups on the beach, there is certain beauty, dignity or stateliness to this bird. They almost look like they have—I hesitate to use the word—virtue.
What do they sound like when aggressive or disturbed? A long series of loud calls ‘ee-ah-ha-ha-ha’.
The red-billed gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) is a smaller, more slender gull with an all-red bill, red eye ring, red legs and feet, pale grey wings with black wingtips. The rest of its body is white. They aren’t as heavy or solid-looking as the black-backs.
In contrast to the black-back, the red-billed gull is often seen in larger flocks, and rarely wanders inland. It is generally found only on the coast except for an inland colony at Lake Rotorua here on the North Island. Other similar species are also found in South Africa, Australia and the southwest Pacific.
The main food at the largest colonies is krill, an order of small crustaceans, found in the sea worldwide.
Red-billed gulls make a wide range of calls, again providing to the seaside ambience of the coast. Their alarm call used during the breeding season is a strident “kek” call.
Red-billed gulls are a protected native species classified as “nationally vulnerable”, having in relatively recent years suffered fairly significant declines in three of their main breeding colonies believed to be due to a decrease in their marine food supply.
Despite this, seagulls throughout the world are generally considered successful species. They survive and generally prosper worldwide in a variety of environments. Is there anything we can learn from them to perhaps assure our own survival (or the survival of our marriages)?
- They communicate loudly. There is no question when a seagull is upset and wants to say something.
- They cooperate. Sure, they argue, fight and squawk at each other, and even steal each other’s food, but in a pinch, they work together against a common enemy. They will drive off predators . . . and then get back to fighting.
- They eat lots of things. As a matter of record, species of animals that become extinct are often fussy eaters. “You expect me to eat that?!” Not seagulls. They’re adaptable. They eat virtually anything.
- And finally, seagulls can drink both freshwater AND seawater. Now that is an advantage. And for those of you in California back in the United States, married or otherwise, when the Colorado River dries up, you’re going to wish you had that ability.
1) Southern black-backed gull | New Zealand Birds Online
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Southern black-backed gull. Adult. Boulder Bank Nelson, January 2008. Image
2) Southern black-backed gull | New Zealand Birds Online
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Whangaehu River estuary · Southern black-backed gull. Immature. . Image © Department of Conservation by …