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Every other Friday, the Outside/In team answers a listener question about the natural world. Got a question of your own? The Outside/In team is here to answer your questions. Call 844-GO-OTTER to leave us a message.

Outside/Inbox: Shouldn't seagulls be at sea?

2621871971_f1cb510378_k.jpg
Scot Close
/
Flickr
A gull with a chick.

This story was originally broadcast on July 21, 2022. It was rebroadcast on July 7, 2023.

Every other Friday on NHPR's Morning Edition, the Outside/In team answers a question from a listener about the natural world.

This week on the Outside/Inbox, Jessica in Belmont asked:

"I’m wondering how and why seagulls follow fast food restaurants. In Tilton, we will have seagulls arrive some time during the summer. Thirty years ago as a kid in Laconia, I remember feeding the seagulls on the lake at the Burger King there. That must mean they migrate away, and they must return. Why? They’re seabirds, right?"

First, let’s address what we’re calling these birds. Sarah Courchesne, an ornithologist based on the New Hampshire Seacoast, said we shouldn't let the name fool us. Seagulls are not found exclusively by the sea.

In fact, the term “seagull” is a misnomer: These birds are actually just “gulls." Courchesne said they're happy near any bodies of water, including lakes and rivers.

Gulls do tend to go to sea to breed in the summer. They nest on islands to avoid ground predators on the mainland. 

"Everywhere you look, these gulls are nesting right on the ground," Courchesne said. "They make this beautiful little grass cup nest... and they lay their eggs right there... in the open."


Fishing or fast food?

During nesting season, gulls commute off-island to find food for their young. Courchesne said there’s a lot of variability in the gull population. Some like to visit Burger King or landfills, while others prefer to catch fish or clams from a mudflat. Different gulls develop different expertise, depending on what they get more practice with.

Gulls even display different parenting styles. Some parents part with their young as soon as they finish raising them in the summer, while other parents stick around for a while. One male parent is known for taking his young flying with them off the island and introducing them to a varied diet including scavenged seal carcasses, fish, clams and picnic baskets.

"He'll kind of like demo it, like... This is how you raid a picnic basket: You wait for those people to wander off and go for a swim, and then you just dive in there," Courchesne said.


Do gulls migrate?

Courchesne tracks gulls through the Gulls of Appledore project. Just off the coast of Portsmouth, the island of Appledore is home to breeding colonies for two species of gulls. The project's scientists and volunteers put bands on the gulls and rely on the public to report back when they see one.

If you encounter a banded gull, you can visit the project's website and report the band number. They'll respond with a full history of that bird, including information about their hatch date, parents, siblings and previous sightings. Plus, any details you report will be added to that history. 

"We totally just put these bands on the gulls and then it's like a message in the bottle," Courchesne said. "'Goodbye bird, I hope someone sees you someday.'"

As for our question about gull migration — not to be confused with commuting for food — Courchesne explained that some gulls migrate and others don’t. Courchesne has tracked Appledore gulls that stay on the island year-round, but others have been spotted as far away as Texas and Florida. It varies, just like their diets and parenting styles. 

"Each one has its own individual way of making it in the world, its own preferences," Courchesne said. "Once you start to see them that way, it really becomes almost impossible to view them as sort of the nuisance animals that a lot of people think they are."


Submit your question about the natural world

If you’d like to submit a question to the Outside/In team, you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to outsidein@nhpr.org. You can also leave a message on our hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER.

Outside/Inis a podcast! Subscribe wherever you get yours.

Felix Poon first came to NHPR in 2020 as an intern, producing episodes for Outside/In, Civics 101, and The Second Greatest Show on Earth. He went to work for Gimlet Media’s How to Save a Planet before returning in 2021 as a producer for Outside/In. Felix’s Outside/In episode Ginkgo Love was featured on Spotify's Best Podcasts of 2020.
Outside/In is a show where curiosity and the natural world collide. Click here for podcast episodes and more.
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