Minnesotans don’t need to go far to spot white-feathered seabirds wheeling overhead or pecking at scraps in parking lots. But what are seagulls, birds associated with coastlines, doing so far inland?
Turns out these adaptable birds have good reason to call landlocked cities like St. Paul home.
They’re Not Really “Sea”gulls
The types commonly seen in the Midwest are laughing gulls and ring-billed gulls. Neither species depends solely on ocean habitats. They often feed and nest around inland lakes or rivers.
“Many gulls, especially in the Midwest, spend their entire life cycles away from the ocean with no ill effects,” says Dr. Andrew Haffenden, avian researcher at the University of Minnesota. “They’re generalist feeders and nesters that can thrive in urban areas as well as coastal ones.”
So while they’re still colloquially called “seagulls,” that’s something of a misnomer for many gull species.
However, they certainly prefer water, Kolbe added. In Duluth, they’ll flock at night to sleep in the safety of the great lake, where they can see danger coming from miles in any direction.
But when there is no lake around, the birds make do with whatever they can find, he said, and they have been thriving inland across North America for ages.
What Draws Seagulls Inland?
Gulls likely first expanded inland following European colonization, exploiting the added food sources and habitat changes industrialization brought. Today, urban sprawl and agriculture provide gulls with even more nesting and feeding opportunities.
Ring-billed gulls gravitate towards cities for the easy food. “A vast grocery store parking lot might seem pretty comforting to a creature that is constantly on the lookout for the next fox or raccoon. More than likely, though, the main reason these open water-loving birds thrive on asphalt, in landfills and in just about any urban environment is, well, their stomachs,” said Kolbe.
Have Gulls Gone Inland for Good?
Research shows urban gulls aren’t just visitors from coastal areas. Banding studies reveal many Midwest gulls stay their entire lives, or return annually to the same inland nesting sites.
So why do they stick to cities and not the sea?
“Just like a dog, they will cue in on our routines. Whether we’re piloting commercial fishing boats on Superior — with all the bait, throwbacks and entrails that follow — or emptying garbage trucks into landfills, or tossing out expired produce, half-eaten sandwiches or other food, the gulls are watching and remembering. True opportunists, they can survive on just about anything.”
Drivers of Urban Seagull Populations
Several factors explain the proliferation of gulls in Twin Cities parking lots and waterways. For starters, ring-billed gulls are the most numerous gull species in North America.
Protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act coupled with population growth has increased their inland presence since the 1960s.
Plus, ring-billed gulls are dietary generalists. “They eat fish alive or dead. They’re 1quick enough to catch insects on the wing. When it rains, they’ll scour the ground for worms. When everything else is frozen, they’ll pick berries. And to a gull, none of these make for a better meal than a stale French fry or quick dumpster dive in a Cub Foods parking lot,” said Kolbe.
The Future of Urban Seagulls
The adaptability that makes gulls at home in cities also brings them into conflict with humans. Their droppings damage infrastructure, they menace pets and snatch picnic fare, and they colonize rooftops in masse.
So could urban gull populations eventually peak? Biologists are unsure. Lethal control is unpopular and often ineffective. The key may be reducing food availability rather than the birds themselves.
“Modifying human behavior to secure trash and eliminate feeding could limit gull numbers,” says Haffenden. “But their flexibility likely means they’re here to stay.”
Gulls will continue to be a familiar sight in Twin Cities parking lots. There, these opportunistic “seagulls” find just what they need: open spaces, plentiful food, and a place to thrive far from the sea.