Our 2021 winter weather in central North Carolina has been one of the wettest on record so far and is set to top the list by the end of the month. But occasionally we have had some sunny, albeit cold, days to everyone’s delight. On one recent walk on an unusually sunny day, I saw a beautiful little syrphid fly flitting about the forest floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern rabbit, but that has been it for non-avian species except for the deer, squirrels and chipmunks in my yard. So my focus has continued to be on the more bountiful birds.
On successive visits to a pond in a neighboring town, mostly to watch the hooded mergansers, it was noteworthy to see that a single ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) had taken up residence. S/he spent a lot of time atop one of the parking lot streetlights at the pond’s edge. It gave a perch for a good overview of the water and its residents.
The bird is usually alone when I see him/her. They are sociable birds, however, and it’s interesting that, in some cases, two females will share nests and raise their two broods together.
I’d seen her/him catch fish there before and noted that the bird never just alighted, positioned the fish and swallowed it quickly. Perhaps this is because it has a broad diet and has learned to eat its varied foods differently.
Not only do they devour fish, insects, earthworms, rodents and grain; they also will scavenge people’s food if they can get to it, for example, on a beach or in a fast-food parking lot.
This yellow-legged gull will fly around the pond from time to time, looking quite beautiful in flight.
S/he doesn’t go fast, although they can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Rather this bird soars quietly in circles scanning both the water and its surroundings.
Recently, I watched this gull catch a fish and then take a long time to actually eat it. First, the bird spent some time positioning the fish just right in its beak.
Then it began dunking the fish underwater and slapping it on the water as well.
Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?
After doing this for a while, the gull suddenly picked up the fish, flew up into the air and dropped it in the water.
Next, it turned tail and dove head-first into the pond, likely hitting, stunning and perhaps drowning the fish with this maneuver.
A Cornell University website says that adult ring-bills “play” by dropping objects and then catching them mid-air, perhaps as a way to practice their hunting technique. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the case.
The gull still didn’t eat the prey right away, however.
S/he kept hitting the fish and moving the aquatic meal around in its mouth.
A couple times it looked like the fish was positioned just right for swallowing.
And then, the re-positioning continued.
Finally, after some time, it looked like the bird had finally ingested the meal and s/he took off again.
It was an interesting observation of animal behavior – my favorite way of spending time on nature walks. And it will likely remain a bit of a mystery as to what the ring-bill gull’s intentions were in carrying out these moves. 😊
What a fascinating observation! The gull must not have been very hungry, or the fish was large enough that he needed to pulverize it to make it easier to swallow. (Or he never had parents like mine who admonished me, “Don’t play with your food!”) That behavior must have been really fun to photograph.
Interesting speculations on what led to the behavior, Lucretia! It was interesting to watch for sure (and hopefully the fish died very early on before it was beaten repeatedly; I’m glad we humans don’t run the risk of being possible food).