Wildlife: Laughing gulls are old friends at the beach

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If your summer vacation plans include a trip to an East Coast beach, I can't predict everything you might see. But one bird that I guarantee you'll see and hear many times is the laughing gull.

I've been visiting the beaches of southern New Jersey almost every year since I was a boy, and if Jersey beach resorts had a mascot, it would be the laughing gull. They're everywhere. Early in the morning just after dawn, they hunt the surf zone for crabs and small fish. Often they steal food from other birds.

At mid-day when the beach is filled with sunbathers, laughing gulls escape to bayside islands, but at dinner time, as the crowds begin to thin, they return. And they've learned that people are a great source of junk food.

They find bread, crackers, popcorn and pretzels irresistible, and sometimes swoop in by the blanket and grab treats from outstretched fingers. Feed these birds at your own peril because they can quickly become bothersome pests.

At 17 inches long with a 40--inch wingspan and weighing just 11 ounces, laughing gulls are medium-size birds with black heads, white eye rings and red bills. Plus, their loud, laughing voice is unmistakable. When I think of Jersey shore in the summer, I immediately think of laughing gulls.

Two other gulls are frequently seen on East Coast summer beaches. Ring-billed gulls have white heads, gray backs, measure about 18 inches long with a 48-inch wingspan, weigh just over a pound and have a telltale dark ring near the tip of the yellow bill. Herring gulls are similar, but at 25 inches with a 58-inch wingspan and weighing 2.5 pounds, they're noticeably larger.

Both herring and ring-billed gulls also occur inland. In fact, earlier this week I saw a report that there were at least 15 active herring gull nests along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. And in mid-winter, when thousands of gulls gather to roost near The Point, most of those birds are ring-billed gulls. The ring-bills are the gulls often seen scavenging at landfills, garbage dumpsters, and fast food restaurants.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8-10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) and online at www.wvly.net. He can be reached at www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, W.Va., 26033.

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