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Ring-billed gulls can often be seen near municipal landfill sites. These adult birds were photographed in April in north Fargo. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Gull's regular hangouts make for bad reputation

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By most people's reckoning, the birds are simply seagulls, a word which makes me cringe somewhat. Some refer to them derisively as "flying rats," a nickname it seems to share with the ubiquitous rock pigeon. Regardless of what a person calls them, gulls are not usually high on the list of respected avifauna. I suspect the birds' reputation is related to their habit of regularly appearing at landfill sites and sanitary lagoons.

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During any given year, roughly a half dozen different gull species can be seen in North Dakota without too much difficulty. All share similarities in size (relatively large birds), shape and bill structure. Beyond that, the birds begin to separate themselves into species.

Certainly the most common gull locally, and perhaps in the state, is the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis). That's in keeping with Howell and Dunn's book "Gulls of the Americas" which says the following of the species, "This common and widespread...gull is perhaps the most familiar gull in North America..." In fact, it's one of the few gulls exclusive to North America. Stewart's Breeding Birds of North Dakota depicts nesting colonies fairly dispersed throughout the state.

During the late 19th century, however, ring-billed gulls were persecuted in great numbers by egg hunters and feather collectors. So much so, entire colonies disappeared. By the 1920s the species began to rebound and appears to be expanding still.

Despite the collective label seagull - ring-billed gulls breed almost exclusively inland with the exception of known colonies around James Bay and the Canadian Maritimes. Unlike a lot of gulls, ring-bills are rarely encountered out of sight of land.

In every ice-free month of the year a person can expect, with some degree of certainty, to encounter ring-billed gulls in and about town. Hot spots include the landfill, the lagoons, mall parking lots, golf courses, or nearly any site holding water.

Like a lot of other gulls, ring-bills are generalists when it comes to diet. In the wild the bird eats mostly small fish and rodents, invertebrates of all kinds, and plant material. In urban settings the list expands to include almost anything you or I would eat. It's not uncommon to witness ring-bills eating stray french fries in a fast food parking lot or heartily tearing into a tossed bag containing leftover food.

One endearing behavior this bird exhibits is its habit of catching insects on the wing. With a wingspan approaching four feet, one would not usually label such a lumbering bird with grace. Yet it's surprisingly agile despite its size.

Ring-billed gulls are three-cycle birds, meaning it takes until the third year before the birds appear as adults. Until then it goes through a series of plumage changes which can make identification a little daunting for beginners and veterans alike. With white heads and fronts, bluish gray backs, yellow-to-greenish legs and bill, black wing tips spangled with white spots, adult ring-bills fairly represent the prototypical gull. The source of the bird's common name is a thin black stripe entirely encircling its bill near the tip.

Appearing close on the heels of ice-out, the birds arrive in early spring. Most head straight to the same nesting colony as the prior year, which usually means a sparsely vegetated island or peninsula on a larger inland lake or waterway. Migratory senses are so ingrained, it has been reported two-day-old ring-bills already exhibit a preference for certain magnetic bearings, according to Cornell University. Attempts at breeding near the Fargo landfill have been reported but none have been successful to my knowledge.

This time of year the birds are already dispersing from nesting areas so virtually anywhere a person goes in the U.S., ring-billed gulls can now be found. Like them or not, a person has to at least respect the species for its hardy ability to survive in human-dominated environments. Call them ring-billed gulls or just gulls. But for my sake, please don't call them seagulls.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. Corliss maintains an outdoors blog at areavoices.com/kcorliss. kcorliss@forumcomm.com.

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