Winter brings ring-billed gulls inland

By Susan Campbell

Gulls? Here in the middle of the state? It may be puzzling but, indeed, you may see a few soaring over the nearby mall or standing around on the local playing fields. Come late November — then through December and reaching their peak sometime in January — the most common species of inland gulls, ring-billed, predictably swells each winter. Highly adaptable, they happily hang out at landfills, parking lots and farm fields. Ring-billed gulls are medium-sized, easy to overlook — unless you are a birdwatcher. Flocks can easily number in the hundreds and, nowadays, are largely unaffected by human activity. Of course, it is the actions of people that have facilitated the species’ winter range expansion over the past century.

Ring-billed gulls are characterized by a white head and chest, gray back and black vertical band around the bill. When perched, their black wingtips, with white spots, extend beyond the squared-off tail. The legs, like the bill, are a bright yellow. Wintering adults will exhibit gray-brown flecking on the head. Immature birds will have varying amounts of brownish streaking as well as pinkish legs and bill. It will take three full years for individuals to acquire adult plumage.

Ring-billed gulls nest far to the north, on small islands across the northern tier of the United States and throughout much of Canada. They use sparsely vegetated habitat and are often found sharing islands with other species of gulls and terns. Ring-billeds are known to return to their natal area to breed, often nesting mere feet from where they nested the year before. They are also likely to return to familiar wintering grounds as well. They have a highly tuned sense of direction, using a built-in compass as well as landmarks (such as rivers and mountain ranges) to successfully navigate in spring and fall.

In the early 1900s, the millinery trade, egg collectors and human encroachment in habitats significantly affected the species’ population numbers. But with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1917, ring-billed gull numbers began to stabilize. No longer was it legal to shoot adults for their feathers or collect their eggs for food. Additionally, introduction of fishes such as the alewife and inundation of new habitat in the western Great Lakes increased breeding productivity in the decades that followed.

Not only has the increase in garbage dumps and farmlands created more foraging habitat for these birds but also new reservoirs. Although ring-billeds prefer insects, worms, fish, small rodents, as well as grains and berries, they are not picky eaters — and therefore highly adaptable. Reproductive success, thanks to an abundance of food, has been even higher in the last thirty years — especially around the Great Lakes and the Eastern United States. As a result, this species has become a nuisance in some areas. Control measures (scarecrows, noisemakers, materials that move in the wind) have been employed but with very little success.

Large flocks of ring-billed gulls are likely to get the attention of birdwatchers come late winter. It is then that other species may get mixed in. It is possible to tease out a herring gull or perhaps a great black-backed gull from the dozens sitting on the pavement or floating on a local lake, if one has good optical equipment — and a lot of patience.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at, or by calling (910) 949-3207.

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