A Noble Vision of Gulls

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Ask most people about seagulls, and you are likely to witness reactions of loathing and disgust. At best, you’ll get indifference. These vagabonds of the bird world lurk around beaches, waiting to nab a morsel from an unprotected picnic. They despoil docks and form raucous flocks in McDonald’s parking lots, where they tussle for the last spilled french fry.

But scientists see a different side of gulls. On their coastal breeding grounds, where they nest in colonies of thousands, gulls engage in a series of elegant, complex social behaviors. Their unruly flocks actually consist of choreographed postures and finely graded vocalizations that impose order, communicating everything from the presence of food or predators to anger, submission, hunger, cooperation, and pair-bonding.

In fact, gulls have a noble history in the study of animal behavior. Gull vocalizations and stereotyped behaviors were the focus of work by Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen, a pioneer in animal behavior research and a Nobel Prize winner for the study of social organization in animals.

Tinbergen patiently observed European Herring Gulls from blinds at breeding colonies in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In his seminal monograph The Herring Gull’s World, published in 1954, Tinbergen wrote that at first a gull colony seems to be utter chaos. However, “it soon becomes evident…that it must be an intricate social structure, organized according to some sort of a plan. The individuals are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”

Tinbergen’s detailed observations and experiments on gulls in the 1940s and 1950s sparked the practice of studying bird behavior in the wild—a novel idea at the time. Since the 1970s, researchers at Shoals Marine Laboratory—co-operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire on Appledore Island off the coast of Maine—have followed up on Tinbergen’s work by studying Herring and Great Black-backed gulls at their nesting grounds. Together, the findings from Tinbergen and Shoals paint a portrait of gulls as socially complex beings.

read more: www.allaboutbirds.org/a-noble-vision-of-gulls/
article: David Bonter and Shailee Shah
photo: Jim Coyer

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