Gulls live in large breeding colonies and have a lot to say to each other, like: Stay away from my territory, interloper! Come back to the nest, baby chicks. Eagles, eagles, eagles! All hands on deck!
From decades of listening to the birds and observing their behavior, researchers including James Hayward have created a rough vocabulary of common calls and what they seem to communicate — though only the gulls themselves know for sure. Hayward recorded these calls and took the photos on Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to the state’s largest breeding colony of Glaucous-winged gulls and their hybrids.
This the quintessential gull call, the plaintive, piercing series of cries that is instantly recognizable. This call seems to convey the message, “I am here, and this is my space!” In this photo, the bird bowing in the foreground is just beginning the call sequence, whereas the bird in the background is just completing it.
The alarm is used when a predator is in the area or approaching at some distance. The head and neck are upright, and the bill opens repeatedly but not very wide.
Bald Eagle Disturbance
Bald eagles are the Glaucous-winged gulls’ biggest nemesis and predator, eating eggs, chicks and adults. As bald eagle populations have increased in the Pacific Northwest, Glaucous-winged gull populations have declined. Gulls typically respond to eagle threats with the long call, but with thousands of gulls crying out at once, the din can be cacophonous. In this photo, nine eagles are stirring up the gulls.
Mew is used to call chicks to the parent. It is also used with the choke call as a warning to intruders to get out of the territory. Often, but not always, mew occurs while the bird walks forward. While emitting the call, the head and neck form an arch, and the bill is open. The sound is a bit like a cat’s meow.
Choke is a strange call that sounds a bit like a person choking. It often is preceded by the mew call and uttered as a warning to intruders: “Get out now, or you’ll be attacked!” Usually, both members of a pair engage in the choke call simultaneously.
The copulation call is used when a male mounts a female. Three associated calls can be heard here — a high-pitched call associated with head-tossing, a courtship behavior used by both sexes before the male mounts the female; a rapid, rhythmic grunting sound by the male that is much louder; and a quieter, high-pitched “fweet” by the female heard in the background. Copulation often lasts for more than two minutes.
Yelp, which sounds like a high-pitched bark, is used when a predator is getting close to the gull. The head and neck are upright, although when the call is emitted, the head and neck move a little forward (as in this photo).