Gulls are the backdrop to the Pacific Northwest.
Their V-shaped silhouettes are essential to the region’s seascapes. Their cries — instantly recognizable — dominate the soundtrack of coastal life. Gulls hunker on every wharf, dock and ferry terminal, bright spots on gloomy days. They mob the tourists at Ivar’s and trail after fishing boats like kites on a string.
As they soar above Puget Sound with the sun glinting through their wings, they can seem more spirit than bird.
“When you look up and see a blue sky and a big bunch of gulls circling, it looks like a flight of angels going overhead,” says local ornithological guru Dennis Paulson.
But how many of us ever really pay attention to these everyday creatures, the seabirds whose existence most intimately intersects our own?
The very adaptability that allows gulls to flourish in cities and ports, and range hundreds of miles inland, also can spawn contempt. It might be entertaining to watch gulls pluck hurled crusts of bread from the air, but it’s not so funny when one steals your fish and chips. Seaside resorts in New Jersey and California deployed trained hawks this summer to scare off gulls so bold, they knocked pizza boxes from customers’ hands, then made off with the slices.
“We tend to have dim views of species like crows, raccoons and gulls that can take advantage of all sorts of situations and make it in places where it’s not easy,” says Tom Good, a seabird biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. “That’s a trait we have as well, but we don’t seem to like to see it in other species.”
The birds’ brilliance at exploiting humanity’s scraps has earned them unflattering names, from flying rats to dump ducks. “Arsey birds in some of the arseholes of the world,” British birder Tim Dee writes in his 2018 book, “Landfill: Notes on Gull Watching and Trash Picking in the Anthropocene.” He doesn’t really mean it, though. Dee is a laraphile — a word derived from the genus name Larus, which means gull-lover. He’s also a philosopher and chronicler of our complicated relationship with the birds.
“The gull can be a consummate flyer or a predatory glutton, an instructor of grace or a depraved hooligan,” he writes.
Much of what we hear about gulls revolves around the problems they cause for us.
They can be killers, for example, though not in the way Alfred Hitchcock envisioned in his horror classic “The Birds.”
A Russian pilot pulled off a “Miracle on the Hudson”-type landing in a cornfield near Moscow in August after striking a flock of gulls. The Port of Seattle spends $600,000 a year on bird-detecting radar, pyrotechnics and other measures to shoo away unwanted wildlife at SeaTac Airport, particularly gulls and other birds. A picture in the port’s wildlife hazard management plan illustrates the stakes: a Boeing 737 with its nose caved in from a collision with a single gull.
Gulls might be welcome to our garbage, but when they compete with us for valuable resources — like salmon — they usually lose. In 2016, federal biologists killed more than 2,500 gulls in Washington and used pyrotechnics and noisemakers to disperse nearly 270,000, mainly to protect smolts at dams on the Columbia River.
But talk to the biologists and birders who study gulls instead of chasing or shooting them, and a more balanced picture emerges. Gulls are their own creatures, with complex social structures and behaviors — some we admire, and some that veer uncomfortably close to our own worst impulses.
“There are a lot of parallels between gulls and humans,” says Jim Hayward, a biologist from Andrews University in Michigan who has been studying gulls in Washington for 40 years.
More than a dozen types of gulls have been spotted in the Northwest, some common, some rare and others just passing through. Heermann’s gulls, with their gray bodies, red beaks and black tails, visit in late summer and fall after breeding in Baja. Delicate Bonaparte’s gulls pop up on their way to and from breeding grounds in the bogs of Alaska. Compact mew gulls, with their yellow legs and beaks, are abundant in winter along the shores of Puget Sound. Ring-billed gulls nest mainly around lakes in Central Washington — one reason experts disapprove of the colloquial name “seagulls.”
The quintessential Western Washington gull is the Glaucous-winged, a year-round resident and local breeder. Large, handsome birds, they’re recognizable by their gray wings and backs, pink legs and yellow bills with red spots. Hungry chicks peck the spot to encourage their parents to regurgitate a meal of fish or French fries or … whatever.
While many seabirds, like tufted puffins, are struggling to survive in a changing environment, most gulls seem to be doing OK — though some Washington colonies have declined precipitously in recent years.
Joe Galusha started scrutinizing Northwest gulls during the Vietnam War as a way to better understand hostility, aggression and territoriality. His mentor was Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen, whose studies of herring gulls in the Netherlands helped lay the foundation for the field of ethology, or animal behavior. A longtime professor at Walla Walla University, Galusha worked for decades with Hayward on Protection Island, a 380-acre wildlife refuge off Port Townsend, where most of the region’s Glaucous-winged gulls, and other seabirds, breed.
There’s a reason a flock of gulls is also called a squabble. Galusha spent months crouched in a 5-foot-square elevated blind, watching thousands of the birds posture and screech and confront interlopers on the densely packed nesting grounds. He identified a progression of defensive moves, starting with quiet threats and culminating in bill- or wing-grabbing jousts — but virtually no fatal injuries.
“Gulls fight 10 times more than humans, but I have watched gulls for 50 years and have never seen an adult gull kill another adult gull,” Galusha says.
Gulls are devoted parents, spending almost half the year nesting, brooding eggs and rearing chicks. Males and females share the load equally, flying up to 20 miles to stuff their gullets with herring and sand lance to feed their voracious young. They defend their nests with a passion researchers can attest to.
Before banding chicks or counting eggs, scientists don hard hats and slickers and grab poles to protect themselves from divebombing parent birds. “They prefer to approach from behind and poop down the back of your neck,” says Galusha, who endured many rammings and guano hits to his face and glasses. A recent study along England’s Cornish coast found eye contact is the best way to deter gulls from stealing your food — but gull researchers already knew that. Some glue plastic eyes to the backs of their hats to deflect rear guard attacks.
Though it’s hard to discern from casual observations, gulls exhibit a range of temperaments, just like people, says Hayward, who developed such a good eye, he could recognize individual birds as they returned to the colony year after year. “They are so different. Each one has its own little life and personality.”
Young gulls, which can take four years to mature and lose their drab juvenile plumage, are a little like human adolescents testing their independence. Galusha and his colleagues tagged some and discovered they steal away from the breeding grounds in groups and hang out together on the beach for hours at a time as they prepare to strike out on their own.
Hayward and his wife, Andrews University statistician Shandelle Henson, also documented some of the darker sides of gull society.
Attempted rape is not uncommon, with males trying to force themselves on nesting females when their mates are away. Hayward has never seen it succeed. A small percentage of males also specializes in cannibalism, eating eggs and chicks from others’ nests. It makes sense from a nutritional point of view: Two eggs are a day’s worth of food, without the bother of hunting. One bird gobbled 81 eggs in a month, sometimes striking while the rest of the colony was battling predators.
Cannibalism increases in years when water temperatures are higher than normal, which reduces survival of the small fish that gulls eat. When the surrounding sea was at its hottest, more than 40 percent of eggs in the colony were cannibalized. And water temperatures are projected to increase in coming years.
“We can’t demonstrate a causal relationship, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong,” Hayward says.
As a possible defense against cannibals and other predators, females on the island seem to synchronize their egg laying, providing safety in numbers.
Despite its stresses, communal living also has advantages.
More eyes improve the chances of finding food and spotting predators. But all the gulls’ defenses can’t counter the biggest threat to their survival: an onslaught of bald eagles.
Gull populations appear to have boomed in the mid-20th century, when open landfills were common, and fish waste was dumped indiscriminately. After most landfills were capped and dumping regulated, gull numbers dipped in many places. At the same time, bald eagle numbers began to rebound by the 1980s.
It’s not unusual today to see 30 to 50 eagles on Protection Island, snatching gull chicks and eggs and leaving gull parents spent from furious attempts to fight them off, Hayward says. In the past few years, the number of breeding pairs of gulls has dropped by half, to about 2,400. If the dynamic doesn’t shift, it’s possible the colony could go extinct — as others have done in the past. When Hayward started his research, Colville Island in the San Juans was home to a bustling gull colony. Today, none of the birds breed there — and no one really knows why.
Researchers in British Columbia tracked a century of Glaucous-winged gull surveys and found a 50% decline in abundance across Georgia Basin. Eagles are partly to blame, but the main factor seems to be a decline in forage fish.
There’s actually not a lot of good data on gull populations across the region, precisely because they are so ubiquitous, says Scott Pearson, a seabird biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Imperiled species get the most scientific attention.
“How are gulls doing?” Pearson asks. “In general, they are probably OK, but I wish we had better indicators.”
More gulls seem to be nesting on rooftops these days, from Seattle and Everett to Tacoma and Olympia — perhaps to escape eagles. “You will see pretty sizable colonies on these flat rooftops in industrial areas, and we don’t have a handle on how well they do there,” says Pearson. “They’re even on the building I work in on the Capitol campus.”
Maybe it’s just another phase in the birds’ side-by-side evolution with humans.
Gulls are long-lived — life spans of 20 years are not unheard of, and one of the oldest on record was a 49-year-old herring gull. The birds have time to learn how to live among humans, and they pass that knowledge on to their offspring.