By John Thaxton
Affectionately known in many places as garbage gulls, ring-billed gulls feel preternaturally comfortable around humans, happily accepting handouts of french fries or apple cores or, in my experience, pizza crust. They consume anything edible and rise like clouds from garbage dumps when a delivery arrives.
I’ve seen hundreds of ring-billeds take to the air when a garbage truck arrived at a dump, and right through closed car windows, with the radio playing, heard their loud and raucous calls. Although we have ring-billeds, herring and black-backed gulls in the Adirondacks, you see the ring-billeds most often—they love people, and their garbage.
About the size of a crow, albeit with a ten-inch longer wingspan, ring-billeds have white bodies and gray wings with black tips—when they’re standing around, which they do much of the time, their black wing tips look like black tail feathers. They have yellow eyes, and a quarter-inch or so black band a half inch immediately back from the tip of their bill.
I remember going to look for a dozen bald eagles someone reported on Saranac Lake and seeing instead at least a hundred ring-billed gulls standing nonchalantly on the ice—they burst into the air when a Labrador retriever ran towards them, and they landed almost exactly where they had stood when the dog left.
Ring-billeds have a black ring encircling their yellow beak, which makes them easily identifiable, and you have heard their call more times than you could imagine.
I remember going to see 25 or so bald eagles standing on a large frozen section of Lake Champlain, at the Westport Boat Launch. We watched the birds through our spotting scope, wondering at how comfortable, and contemplative, they seemed in a large group, and as the temperature hovered at around zero turned around quickly and headed back to the car.
As soon as we saw the car we saw a ring-billed gull standing on the engine hood, looking as nonchalant as you could imagine, and although I assumed the bird would fly away soon as we got within 10 feet of the car, it just turned its head away from us and looked in the opposite direction with an expression of utter disdain.
I assured my wife that as soon as we opened the doors to the car the gull would fly off, but no, it stared at us defiantly, seemingly indignant that we would suffer it to relocate in order to facilitate our agenda. I told my wife not to worry, that the gull would fly away as soon as we opened the car doors, but no, it stood its ground and glared at me obnoxiously as I opened the driver’s side door, perhaps three feet from the bird. It gave me perhaps the dirtiest look I have ever experienced.
So I started the car, figuring the gull would take off immediately, and when my wife expressed concern about the gull, I told her not to worry—it would take off as soon as we started to drive.
When I got up to about 15 miles per hour, I began to wonder about the intentions of the gull, which seemed perfectly comfortable toodling along at 25 miles per hour, flapping its wings every few seconds but not taking to the air.
Finally, screaming bloody murder, the gull dislodged from the engine hood, careened backward into the windshield and wafted over the roof in an indescribably clumsy avian somersault, screaming in what I have since imagined as a somersault shriek—I saw it in the rear view mirror making myriad clumsy flight corrections before righting itself and heading back nonchalantly to the Lake Champlain boat launch in Westport.
You’ll see more ring-billed gulls in the Adirondacks than any other species—such as herring gulls, greater black-backed gulls, lesser back-blacked gulls and laughing gulls—and you will without doubt hear them, arguably more often than you would like, holding forth about such key issues as the lack of french fries at the Westport boat launch.
John Thaxton writes the “Birdwatch” column in Adirondack Explorer’s magazine. Sign up to receive 7 issues a year, delivered to your mailbox and/or inbox.