Gulls Have Two Pecking Orders

gullsLongboat Key, Florida

Christmas Day


On Christmas Eve afternoon mullet, large gray plump fish litter Whitney Beach. All lay eyeless. Some resemble tightly wrapped sub-sandwiches, others have invasive holes, while some lay swathed in sand. None yet have their skull cavities completely eaten through so that the sand below is visible through their eye sockets. That will come tomorrow. When I’m done looking at them I think I’ve a textbook view of how the various gulls dismembered this bounty. However life in the avian world, as I will soon learn, has no syllabus.


Pecking and Tearing

Christmas Day on Whitney Beach sees a low tide and many of the same fish as yesterday. Feeding starts in the early afternoon. Two mature and one immature ring-billed gulls are chowing down. One has finished working a gaping opening below the fish’s front fin and is now starting one in its lower body. Another, working an upper hole, pulls out a rounded piece, perhaps an organ, lays it on the sand but finds it too tough to chew. Others lingering nearby also leave it. Soft, moist purple intestines are preferred. Another ring-bill, with the upper half of a fish carcass and its long trailing spine, easily pulls  toward the water.


After a while I see a predominant pattern. After the eyes, a slash is made in the tough skin by the front fin below the gill. It’s hard work. The lower hole is made by continuous pecking, pushing and pulling the skin that at first leaves a huge dent as if the fish were a car whose shiny gray exterior has a huge dent. A hole is eventually made. What will be left are either little of the fish’s gray body and skeleton or the remains of the skull which has been picked clean.


Pecking Order

What surprises me is that there is an avian pecking order. There are few immature herring gulls, the largest birds on the beach. No bird challenges them when they feed. There is even a one-footed immature herring gull in its fourth winter on the beach, that I’ve watched mature over the years. No gull ventures near it when it’s feeding. The slightly smaller, lesser black-backed gulls, which look menacing, are also not bothered and work persistently.


The smaller ring-billed gulls are overwhelmingly at the carcasses, feeding in short sessions, walking away then returning. These mild mannered gulls are anything but that with fish where they turn into aggressive scavengers. One is eating at an upper hole with another standing by when a third ring-bill flies in flapping hard. It begins a wing flapping, head to head tiff with the first who walks away. The aggressive intruder then moves its neck back and forth like a bellows and gives a mournful gull cry of triumph.  The then turns its gaze on the bystander who walks also. The Alpha, so triumphant doesn’t even peck at its prize. It seems as if he is so dominant that he doesn’t even have to do so. The speed and agility in these contests is astonishing and challengers  don’t always win. Another ring-bill is eating when an aggressive intruder flies in. They immediately square off face to face, wings flapping. The bird which had been at the carcass leap frogs over the intruder who immediately walks away.


Laughing gulls, smaller than the ring-bills, are the most aggressive birds on the beach when it comes to human food which they will seize in a group frenzy. However with the fish they are milquetoasts, lucky to get a turn at the carcasses. One laugher working a carcass is easily scared off by a ring-bill which flies in not even putting up a fight. Then the laugher walks past another ring-bill working a fish not even trying to get at it.


Vultures’ Dance

When is it over? When the tide reclaims its own. But four brown pelicans with other ideas are floating on the calm sea. One seems to let a large fish slip from its enormous pouch. Another pulls it from the water then drops it. These birds dive for live fish, maybe they are too finicky to eat a dead one. Minutes later seven brown pellys come ashore, far down the beach in a mass of confusing flapping wings. A breeding one picks up a dead fish but its bill won’t hold the weight. They all go back to the water but the fish is gone! I can’t believe it was swallowed. Maybe they’re playing with it. Who knows what happens when the sea reclaims its own?


A breeding brown pelly comes ashore, takes a dead fish in its bill sideways and holding it tightly goes back into the water. At first it seems that it is trying to get enough water in the pouch to swallow the mullet without losing it. Then several other join it and they start to slowly circle counter clockwise. It’s a dance of vultures. The edge of the tail sticks out while the body is utterly transparent in pale orange see-thorough pouch. If this pelly drops the fish it is another’s good fortune.  A non-breeding pelly, pecks aggressively at the one with the prize. This reminds me of The Old Man and The Sea, when the sharks are circling the skiff. How long will this dance continue? Now the fish is moved toward its throat in the bird’s bill. The pelly gets the fish into its throat but can’t swallow it. Will it choke?  A minute later it swallows but the base of the pelly’s pouch doesn’t appear fully closed. Then it moves its belly and raises up its huge wings. All the pellys slowly separate. No fat lady needs to sing; it’s over.

Michael Givant
Michael Givant is a columnist for Anton Media Group. His column A Bird's Eye View is popular among local birdwatchers and photographers.

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