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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The ring-billed gull - a bird with sass

As a young parent, I shared my love of birds with all of my children from their earliest years. I can’t say that I had great success with this as only one of my three kids developed as deep an interest in birds as I have, but it wasn’t from lack of effort. But maybe maybe I’m being a little hard on myself. After all, any one of the three will gladly go grouse hunting with me when the opportunity presents itself, so I guess that is birding after a fashion.

You learn a lot things being a parent. One lesson I learned was the limits of childhood hearing. My oldest had the hardest time differentiating between the word eagle and sea gull. If you think about it, they do sound very similar. So, to help my child with understanding the difference between these two species of birds I simply limited the description of the latter to “gull.” Not sea gull, simply gull. And in all truth, that is often more accurate. This is especially true for our bird of the month, the Ring-billed Gull. It might spend its entire life and never see the sea. It might never be a sea gull.

Actually, there are many species of gulls that are limited to the interior of the North American continent. The Ring-billed is simply a highly adaptive specie that has learned to exploit whole series of environments, from the Florida Keys to the Yoke’s Market parking lot in Ponderay, Idaho. It makes the All-North-American team as it ranges from sea to shining sea, as well as down to the Gulf Coast, Mexico, and up into the interior of Canada. In fact, it is one of the most common, if not the most common gull, on the continent. They are everywhere you are! 

So what makes a Ring-billed gull distinctive from other gulls? Not a whole lot. The Ring-billed is one of the white-headed gulls, as opposed to the black-headed gulls which tend to be smaller. The Ring-billed is not the only gull with a ringed bill. But it is probably the only one you’ll ever encounter around here with a yellow ringed-bill. That is an important distinction. There are many sub-adult gulls of many species that have rings around their bills, but with one exception, the Ring-billed is the only one that retains the ring as an adult. And yellow bills indicate in gulls a breeding adult. 

Let’s look at this a bit more carefully. The adult Ring-billed Gull will have the “normal” colors of an adult white-headed gull. You know: the white head and body, the grayish-colored wings, the black tail, etc. Learning the particulars, such as the colors of the legs, the slight distinctive colorations, and a few other field marks will help you to separate one gull specie from an other, but this requires a good field guide and patience. But what you must keep in mind is that the Ring-billed, like many other gulls, has a long developmental period. They do not obtain their adult breeding colors until their third summer, and then they change again in the off-breeding season. 

This gets complicated and can be frustrating for many birders. Let’s use the Ring-billed gull as an example. A juvenile bird (one in its first year of life and still a kid, though adult sized) is easy to spot. It is mostly browns and whites. But then the juvenile bird molts into its first-winter pattern, then into a first-summer pattern, and then into a second-winter pattern, and then into a second-winter pattern. Finally, in its third summer of life will you see the adult breeding pattern—the one with the yellow bill. But then it loses the yellow bill during the upcoming off season. If you can simply recognize the fact that it takes a typical gull three years to become a breeding adult, you can get by not knowing whose in their first-year or second-year pattern. Just know that if it is late spring or summer and somebody has a yellow bill, he or she (they can be difficult to tell apart) are breeding adults. And if that yellow bill has a ring around it, it is a Ring-billed gull. Whew! Clear as mud.

The Ring-billed is quite the adaptive specie. It is an omnivore, meaning it will eat anything. And they are common, which is a testimony to their versatility. Around there they often stay for the winter. Granted, some probably migrate to the coast when the snow begins to swirl, but many of them stay. They’re are the one I appreciate; these are the ones I identify with. Nothing warms my heart more than seeing a Ring-billed Gull wading through the slush on ice-covered Lake Pend Oreille digging out the remains of some ice fisherman’s discarded worm. Tough birds... you gotta love ‘em. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, ring-billed gull, gull

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