To many people, all birds seen at a beach around New York Harbor are seagulls. Yet, this isn’t true. There isn’t actually a single species of bird called a seagull. There are black-backed gulls, herring gulls, and even bagels (ha!), but not a single bird called a seagull.
The term “seagull” can be misleading, because many species of gulls can live inland, sometimes far away from the sea or ocean. Seagull is a lazy word used by lazy people used to identify any species of seabird. But this list includes a wide group of birds adapted to living in the marine environment from gannets to cormorants, from albatrosses to skimmers, from sheerwaters to terns, from petrels to pelicans, and even penguins.
Gulls are just one group of seabirds. This is why birders will often refer to “seagulls” as just “gulls,” until a species can be properly identified.
Most gulls belong to a large family of birds named Laridae. The word Laridae is from the Greek word meaning “ravenous sea bird,” which is pretty good description for a group of birds that we all know can be greedy, loud-mouthed, and often hungry.
Gulls can be heavy-duty and hardy too, able to withstand freezing temperatures in the winter and roasting hot temperatures in the summer. They are also proficient flying birds that make seemingly impossible dips and rises in midair appear effortless, and of course, gulls are skilled scavengers that can feed on dead or injured animals or on a variety of foodstuff from fish to food scrapes.
Gulls are tough little birds. From the 1950s through the 1970s, as many people were leaving the waterfront around New York City due to crime, pollution, and poor economic conditions, it was gulls that found a way to adapt and survive around the harbor when others, including people, failed.
Sometime gulls are even smarter than people. In December 2012, a father and son had to be rescued near Whangarei, the northernmost city in New Zealand, while fishing on jet skies during a high wind warning. Police reported that the high winds and strong swells were enough to keep gulls around the bay on dry land, but not crazy people.
Gulls can be found nearly anywhere around the world, looking similar to gulls found around New York Harbor. Gulls are relatively uniform in shape, but do vary in size and coloration.
There are basically four main species of gulls commonly seen during the summer around New York Harbor, including Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. There are black-backed gulls, which at over two feet in length is the largest species of gull in the world. It has a back mostly full of black feathers. There are laughing gulls, a medium sized species of gull that has a face mostly full of black feathers and a reddish bill. It’s a very vocal bird that sounds like it’s laughing at you. Laughing gulls can also generally be seen only during the summer breeding season. Ring-billed gulls have a ring around their bill (who said identifying birds was hard, ha). Herring gulls are the classic gray-and-white, pink-legged gull, which many people think of when thinking of a “seagull.” Herring gulls get their name because herring was their favorite food before people threw too much garbage along our coastline.
While gulls can be seen nearly anywhere in and around New York Harbor, from following fishing boats to picking up scrapes, to beaches, parks and parking lots, they tend to raise a family during the summer at only a few selected and secretive sites where people are less numerous. Remote sections of Sandy Hook and the islands around Jamaica Bay seem to be the two hot spots for breeding populations of gulls. In general, gulls will nest and lay eggs on land with other gulls, especially from the same species, on grassy areas or dunes above the reach of high tides. Sometimes, smaller gulls are joined by other species of marine birds such as terns, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers.
Let’s face it. If gulls were endangered species, we would all have a greater appreciation and respect for this family of robust birds. If they weren’t so abundant and pushy, we’d have a great deal more regard for this coastal family of birds that share the waters with us.