Duped: We Thought We Knew Seagulls!

By: Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Volume 19, Issue 2, February 2024

I dislike hordes of seagulls as much as anyone. When my partner, JBJ, and I went to see a movie in Kingston last summer, we were accosted and disgusted by dozens of seagulls in the parking lot, crying their shrill cries, swooping down near us, looking for scraps to gobble, and threatening us with a bombing run.

At home on the island, however, we have devised an intriguing method of keeping away the white, flying hordes. Each spring, in late April, we feed and befriend a seagull, knowing well that its territorial nature will not allow others to come near. Our friend cries loudly whenever another gull flies within a couple of hundred yards, warning that approaching any closer will bring consequences.

The ring-necked gull that came to us last spring was named Springster, due to its early interest in JBJ’s attention. It was a mature gull, with pure white on its head, and none of the speckles of the non-breeding gulls that are just over a year old. We could never be sure of his precise gender identity, but thought of him as a male on the basis of our preconceptions.

Shy at first, Springster ate morsels of bread we had thrown only from a distance. Within a few days, he gained confidence, and took command of a rock about fifty yards southeast of our dock.  At once, he began crying to other seagulls to stay away, and we watched him actually fly up and chase those who came within a few hundred meters. Soon, we were feeding him on our raft that floated some seven meters downstream from the dock. Then, one day, he flew over and alighted on a cleat on the dock, seeming to announce a desire to be fed. Of course, we obliged, and our friendship blossomed. Within a few more days, I was able to get as close as four meters from him, and trust was increasing.

It was in early May that our friend changed his tune. One day, a second gull alighted on a rock next to him, and, to our surprise, drew no complaints. It was also a mature gull, but of a slightly smaller size. It seemed a bit less aggressive, and even demure. We realized that we now had two personalities on our hands, and called for names of each one. Our first friend became Elmer Springster, and his mate, Elsie.

She soon learned to go to the dock to be fed, and, later, to alight on the cleat. Like Elmer, she would come in for a feed when we called her loudly. This raised the question of how to distinguish the two. Other than an apparent difference in size, visible only when they were together, and her shyness compared to his boldness, we could not always be sure which was which.

Soon, we saw a sight we had never seen. The two gulls were paddling toward us, presumably coming for a feed, when they approached each other and began rubbing their necks together!  They were cuddling, expressing their mutual attraction! And then, a day later, when they did so again, we could hear them making a cooing sound, and later, a clucking sound! We were astounded!

However, within a few days of their being together, there was a change in behavior that was quite extraordinary. They responded differently to the bread that we threw to them. Instead of  Elmer eating the bread as before, he swam over to a morsel, picked it up, did not swallow it, but swam to Elsie, and held it out to her. She then picked it out of Elmer’s bill, and ate it! This happened repeatedly. When they were on the raft, she would pick at the bread as Elmer held it for her. He was feeding her, and did so over and over this way, on the raft, for almost another week.

At first, we had been feeding them scraps of various kinds of bread, and they seemed to like it all. However, when we offered them whole wheat bread, they turned up their noses (and beaks) at the remaining white bread morsels. We then obliged and bought them only whole wheat bread as the summer progressed.

Of course, this budding romance seemed unlikely to continue before our eyes for long. We were hardly shocked when the pair did not reappear after mid-May and had apparently departed for unknown destinations and pursuits. Other seagulls came by, would stay for a few hours, and then move on. We made no attempts to attract or feed them, imagining that the Springsters had gone to raise a family, and hoping that they might return.

It was mid-June when Elmer reappeared, coming to sit on the cleat, and then pursuing our delicacies. He would eat his fill, stuffing his gizzard to be visibly swelling, and then take off and go somewhere out of sight. We thought that perhaps he was taking a snack to Elsie, who was sitting on a nest somewhere.

Both Elmer and Elsie returned in late June, acting quite normally, and looking no differently.  Could the Springsters have bred and raised a family in the past month?

By the middle of July, change was afoot, as Elmer departed for a life that was, no doubt, in the fast lane. Elsie stayed, and our friendship deepened, as she took up behaviors that she had learned from Elmer; retaining her dominance of the rock, sometimes landing on the cleat, and chasing away unwelcome intruders. We left the island in August for a stretch and did not return until Labor Day.

When we returned in early September, there was Elsie, on her rock (or so we thought)! At first, she showed little recognition of us. But soon, she would fly over to the raft to gobble some bread morsels we had thrown there. She ate in a hesitant and even dainty manner. Then, it became clear that she preferred to eat bread that was thrown to her on the raft, but not in the water. She did not want to get her feet wet! She was a seagull princess!

At first, we thought that we were reestablishing our friendship with Elsie, whom we had forsaken for weeks. Progress was slow, and she did not show the appetite for bread that we had seen in the spring or summer. She was wary of us, and timid, which raised questions.

It was careful inspection of her with binoculars and photographs that revealed that she was, in fact, a different bird. She had speckles on her head, instead of the pure white. Our early hopes and expectations that she was Elsie Springster were completely dashed! We had been duped!

As we licked our wounds and tried to regain our self-confidence, we had to revise our thinking. If our new friend was surely no Springster, she could still have the old name, “Elsie.” Calling her this helped us to swallow our own embarrassment at having been hoodwinked into thinking that we had experienced the return of the native gull.

The new Elsie was, in fact, a non-breeding gull, as shown by our Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds.  Likely born just over a year ago, she would not breed until the following spring, when all her speckles would be gone.

As the fall progressed, our new Elsie showed remarkable affinity for us, even as we took in the raft for the season. When she was nowhere to be seen, we could walk out of the house in mid-day, call her name loudly, and have results. Within a minute, she would suddenly appear in the air, and usually land on the dock for a morsel or two.

In the early mornings, upon rising from bed, we would look everywhere for her, in vain. Yet, we have long known that seagulls can see into our house, and observe our movements, or lack of them. Indeed, for nearly two months, while we were making breakfast, she would often surprise us and appear on her rock or on the dock for breakfast bread. Sometimes, she would fly around in circles in front of the house, and then land as soon as we walked back down on the dock.

Once, I saw Elsie catch and swallow a nice perch. Thinking that she would be satiated for a day or so, I went down and tried to attract her to the dock, expecting her to stay on her rock.  Surprisingly, she came over, and ate a bite of bread but would have only one. It was as if she was telling me that she liked us and our bread, but that her stomach was full.

In October, there came increased numbers of gulls that were mottled in color, had been born in the spring, were thin and hungry, and willing to dodge Elsie’s cries and chases. It was clear, then, that she was a big gull and was visibly larger than any of the interlopers who tried to snatch the bread we threw. They were persistent, and in a few instances, fooled us by stealing food that we had put out for our good friend, not them.

As late as November, there was still a surprise in store. It was on the fourth day of the month that we saw Elsie on the dock with a friend. She seemed to be a bit larger than he, but had the same speckling on the head. He seemed less timid and shy than our former Springster male.  Together, they warmed to us quickly in the cool air. At times, I was able to come within two meters of them when they were hungry and devouring whole wheat!

The pair took their duties seriously, together chasing other seagulls who came in for a feed.  However, the intruders were persistent, and seemed to learn from observing our two guardians.  We must admit that we did occasionally mistake an intruder for a friend, much to our chagrin, and to our detriment, as confusions and seagull hordes increased in the late fall.

Our autumn seagull friends stayed with us until we left on November seventeenth, sad to depart the island, and the avian drama, and hoping that some might return next spring.

Our shields from the seagull hordes have persuaded us more than ever before that birds and mammals each have an individual personality, and that they must be singled out from the crowd in order to grasp and appreciate their uniqueness. River life affords us a very special opportunity to interact with individual wildlife in limited, sometimes embarrassing, but immensely interesting and rewarding ways.

By Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Raymond S. Pfeiffer’s partner is Judith Bedford-Jones, alias JBJ. She is a retired nurse and lawyer, living in Ottawa and on her family island, Mudlunta. He has a doctorate in philosophy from Washington University and is professor of Philosophy Emeritus from Delta College in Michigan. He is the author of philosophy books and articles, and enjoys writing for Thousand Islands Life. They came to know the Springsters and their successors on The Punts Islands.

Editor's Note: This is the second article about Gulls on The Punts Islands in the Lake Fleet. The first, "Alternative Personalities," was published in March, 2023.

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 2, February 2024, Essay, Nature

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