Seagull & Crab | Eatons Neck, New York

© Sophie W. Smith

Joined October 2012

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Diet and feeding
Charadriiform birds drink salt water, as well as fresh water, as they possess exocrine glands located in supraorbital grooves of the skull by which salt can be excreted through the nostrils to assist the kidneys in maintaining electrolyte balance.

Gulls are highly adaptable feeders that opportunistically take a wide range of prey. The food taken by gulls includes fish and marine and freshwater invertebrates, both alive and already dead, terrestrial arthropods and invertebrates such as insects and earthworms, rodents, eggs, carrion, offal, reptiles, amphibians, plant items such as seeds and fruit, human refuse, chips, and even other birds. No gull species is a single-prey specialist, and no gull species forages using only a single method. The type of food depends on circumstances, and terrestrial prey such as seeds, fruit, and earthworms are more common during the breeding season while marine prey is more common in the nonbreeding season when birds spend more time on large bodies of water.

In addition to taking a wide range prey, gulls display great versatility in how they obtain prey. Prey can be obtained in the air, on water, or on land. In the air, a number of hooded species are able to hawk insects on the wing; larger species perform this feat more rarely. Gulls on the wing also snatch items both off water and off the ground, and over water they also plunge-dive to catch prey. Again, smaller species are more manoeuvrable and better able to hover-dip fish from the air. Dipping is also common when birds are sitting on the water, and gulls may swim in tight circles or foot paddle to bring marine invertebrates up to the surface. Food is also obtained by searching the ground, often on the shore among sand, mud or rocks. Larger gulls tend to do more feeding in this way. In shallow water gulls may also engage in foot paddling. A method of obtaining prey unique to gulls involves dropping heavy shells of clams and mussels onto hard surfaces. Gulls may fly some distance to find a suitable surface on which to drop shells, and apparently a learned component to the task exists, as older birds are more successful than younger ones. While overall feeding success is a function of age, the diversity in both prey and feeding methods is not. The time taken to learn foraging skills may explain the delayed maturation in gulls.

Gulls have only a limited ability to dive below the water to feed on deeper prey. To obtain prey from deeper down, many species of gulls feed in association with other animals, where marine hunters drive prey to the surface when hunting. Examples of such associations include four species of gulls feeding around plumes of mud brought to the surface by feeding grey whales, and also between orcas (largest dolphin species) and kelp gulls (and other seabirds). Read more

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