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Perhaps this was Hitchcocks horrific inspiration

Was it something like this that inspired Alfred Hitchcock to produce one of his more well-known movies, The Birds? One wonders. For the past couple of weeks good-sized flocks of gulls have been seen circling and wheeling above town feeding on large flying insects. Specifically, the birds are Franklins gulls (Larus pipixcan).

Gulls as a whole are an interesting group. It can take as long as four years to achieve adult plumage for the larger gulls and as few as two for the smaller species; changing appearances almost continuously until then. This represents a serious identification challenge for bird watchers and most are hesitant to claim mastery of this confusing lot. Fortunately we in the Red River Valley have only about five regularly occurring gull species to worry about. And the Franklins gull is probably the easiest to identify (it was named for the famed British naval officer and explorer Sir John Franklin, who mysteriously perished along with all hands while searching for the Northwest Passage in the 19th Century).

This small, two-year gull, is one of the black-headed species. Approaching the breeding season its bill turns blood red while bold white crescents appear above and below the eye, giving it a spectacled look. In addition, it is known to display varying degrees of pinkish blush on an otherwise stark white front. Its back and upper wings are dark gray. After nesting, the bird loses much of its black head to whiteness and the bill turns black. Juvenile birds look similar to that with more areas of gray.

Many people are surprised to learn that sea gulls nest here. Colonies of tens of thousands are known to nest in large wetland complexes across prairie areas of north-central U.S. and Canada. The closest one to us is probably on Devils Lake where this bird is very common all summer. A floating nest of plant debris is constructed by the adult pair. It slowly sinks as it decays so must be continuously added to throughout the nesting period.

Due to its prairie marsh habitat preference, this birds population crashed during the Dust Bowl years and was an uncommon sight for awhile. But it will wander over a large area in search of suitable habitat. This flexibility has allowed its population to rebound nicely and gives it an evolutionary advantage over site-specific nesters.

Known to early settlers as prairie doves, these Great Plains dwellers are through with breeding and are bulking up fat reserves. The bird feeds primarily on insects so it is commonly seen following plows working the fields. Lesser amounts of plants, worms and small fish are eaten as well. Of all the worlds gulls the Franklins gull is the only one to go through two complete molts (replacing each feather) every year. Some suggest this is because of the need for fresh feathers due to a rather lengthy migration it must undertake twice a year--summering here and wintering along the Pacific Coast of South America, some 5,000 miles.

Of the recorded flocks of gulls, the Franklins gull puts up some impressive numbers. On the southern Great Plains, groups of over 1 million birds have been seen. Maybe Jessica Tandy or Tippi Hedren know, but I wonder what really was the brainchild behind the Hitchcock classic? The truth is probably pretty bland. So Ill continue to surmise that, maybe, just maybe, it was a dizzying blizzard of Franklins gulls seen in migration.