You will never see seagulls in Missouri.
You won’t find a bird named “seagull” anywhere else, either. However, gulls are one of Missouri’s interesting winter migratory bird visitors.
Before we get to gulls, let’s set things straight about the birds many people call “seagulls.” You’re probably saying “Don’t tell me there are no such things as seagulls because I’ve gone to the ocean and seen them with my own eyes.” Even if you haven’t seen one, you’ve heard about seagulls. They’ve been mentioned in books, songs and poems.
About the only place you won’t find any mention of a bird that has the specific name of “seagull” is in a bird book. What you’ll find there is information about gulls. These birds belong to the bird family Laridae, a group comprised of shore birds. There are more than 20 species of gulls in North America and more than 40 worldwide. Look through the list of gull species and you’ll find interesting names like Bonaparte’s gull, laughing gull and Franklin’s gull. But nowhere will you find a species with the name “seagull.” That’s because there is no such species. Because many species of gulls can be found in coastal areas near the ocean, humans have used the term “seagull” as a collective moniker for these white, shrill-crying birds for many, many years. It’s become such a commonly used term that most people don’t realize that it doesn’t apply to any specific species of gull.
In Missouri, you may see up to seven different species of gulls in the state, depending on where you are. Probably the most commonly sighted gull in southern Missouri is the ring-billed gull. Because ring-billed gulls feed on fish and mussels, they can be seen at large lakes and large rivers where part of the water remains unfrozen.
That’s the scenic areas you’ll see gulls. A not-so-scenic location where they can also be found is the nearest landfill. Gulls, like many other animals, are opportunists that will feed on whatever is provided to them. Landfills are great sources of thrown-away table scraps and other types of food items. Sometimes, you’ll see large flocks of gulls at landfill areas.
The gulls seen here in Missouri aren’t birds that have migrated inland from the ocean. Most gulls that come to Missouri are migrants from the Great Lakes region or points further north (Hudson’s Bay, arctic regions, etc.). During the coldest parts of winter, usually from mid-January to early February, the big rivers and lakes in northern areas of the continent freeze. Gulls move south, staying near the southern edge of this cold weather. Winter is the prime time of the year in Missouri to look for gulls at any of the above-mentioned areas where they congregate.
One of the most interesting stories involving gulls is one that has nothing to do with those seen in Missouri. It is the story of “The Miracle of the Gulls,” a story that paved the way for the California gull to become the state bird of Utah. The hero of this story is the California gull, a species found in a number of western states and has a summer range that includes Utah. This event occurred in 1848 in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. In a nutshell, large numbers of gulls appeared to help rid the Mormon farmers of the area of the swarms of insects that were damaging their crops.
It's a great story but bird experts point out that, while the gulls’ arrival was very timely for the farmers in Utah in 1848, it probably wasn’t as “miraculous” as it seemed. Large numbers of these birds (and several other gull species, as well) have come to Utah every summer for generations. While they’re there, they eat insects. In other words, then, just as is the case now: the gulls’ arrival in Utah was a regular occurrence – it was nothing out of the ordinary. It was something that very likely occurred before 1848 and has occurred on a seasonal basis since that time, as well.
Moving back to gulls found in Missouri, it’s best to talk to someone who has experience with gull identification because some species take up to four years to mature and may be seen in many different, and sometimes confusing, plumages. Besides the ring-billed gull; some of the other gulls species to look for in Missouri include Bonaparte’s gull, Franklin’s gull, herring gull, lesser black-backed gull, Thayer’s gull, Glaucous gull and Iceland gull.
More information about Missouri birds can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information, call 417-895-6880.
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