BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Although 19 gull species occur in Minnesota, only 3 breed and nest here – the Bemidji pioneer | Gmx Pharm

I first spotted a handful of wild birds on my canoe trip to Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve last month. Among them were two species of gulls and one species of tern.

About 27 gull species occur in North America. Another 18 species of gull-like birds – terns and gliders – are also found.

There are 52 species of gulls worldwide, but while Minnesota has 19 species, only three species of gulls breed and nest here: Ring-billed, Franklin’s, and Herring Gulls. And of tern species, Black, Bonaparte, Caspian, Common and Forster Terns can be seen in Minnesota.

Among the species I observed at Katmai were the northern gull, pink-footed gull and arctic tern, the latter of which is known to be a master of migration. Although difficult to fathom, arctic terns breed, nest and winter in the Arctic Circle. The annual round trip migration of these little birds is nearly 19,000 miles!

According to Minnesota’s DNR website, “Gulls are medium-to-large sized birds that are typically white or gray in color and often sport black markings on their wings and/or heads.”

Apart from species of black-backed gull and black-headed gull, most gulls are very similar in appearance. In fact, some gulls hybridize with each other, which not only makes definite identification difficult, but also proves that gulls are very closely related.

The website goes on to describe, “Other physical features include webbed feet and long, powerful beaks. Most are members of the genus Larus in the family Laridae and are closely related to terns, also in the family Laridae but in the genus Sterna.

“Many members of the genus are carnivorous birds, eating both live and dead prey. Some are also cannibalists, eating the eggs and young of others of their own kind. Being resourceful and opportunistic in their search for food, they often obtain it through kleptoparasitism (stealing food from other species).”

Gulls are both known and despised for this behavior, kleptoparasitism. Undeniably, as the DNR noted, “many people can attest to this trait, as seagulls harass people even in their persistent attempts to steal or beg for treats. They will also use other resources provided by humans, including garbage from landfills and residential areas, and stored forage or fruit/cereal crops in agricultural settings.”

When I was conducting my master’s wildlife research project in North Dakota, I once watched in amazement as a group of swimming American white pelicans worked together to herd tiger salamander larvae into a shallow wetland inlet. The pelicans swam side-by-side in a single file as water boiled ahead of them from fleeing salamanders. Meanwhile dozens of noisy, flying seagulls followed close above the pelicans.

Then, in an incredible display of predators, the pelicans began to stuff themselves with squirming salamanders and fill their pouches and throats with the amphibians.

And all those seagulls? The resourceful birds began swooping down from the sky to snatch hapless salamanders not only from the surface of the water, but also from the pouches and beaks of pelicans. I watched in utter chaos as the seagulls took advantage of the pelicans’ work and stole their meals.

And the target of gull kleptoparasitism wasn’t necessarily just pelicans. Because even if a gull managed to snatch a salamander from a hapless pelican, other gulls immediately began to attack the “lucky” gull.

Just as a gull frantically flew away with a dangling salamander in its beak, other gulls would chase and try to snatch the salamander away. Not infrequently, the pursuer emerged victorious, only to become the victim as another seagull managed to steal the thief’s stolen food.

In Minnesota, colonies of Ring-billed, Lesser Herring, and Franklin’s Gulls breed and nest on isolated islands and shores of certain lakes and wetlands. The vast Lake of the Woods provides a favorite nesting spot for herring gulls, while the Franklin’s gull, a species of particular concern in Minnesota, nests in some of the state’s prairie swamps.

Black Martins can be seen nesting in wetlands and other aquatic habitats throughout the state.

So if you call these special birds seagulls, you are wrong. Seagulls are certainly seagulls with individual unique names, traits, and places to observe and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a DNR wildlife manager in Minnesota. He can be reached at

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