Monday, January 4, 2016

Ivory Gull

On New Year’s Day, an Ivory Gull was reported from Duluth’s Canal Park. Ivory Gulls are circumpolar, almost never seen away from arctic pack ice. Their breeding colonies are widely scattered around the globe. Even in winter this bird rarely ventures south of the Bering Sea or waters off Greenland. This bird’s genus, Pagophila, means “frost-lover.” Erika and I drove the 180 miles to Duluth and spent the next two days looking at the gull and continuing our ten-year search for a Great Gray Owl. We did not have to search for the gull. About 50 birders stood on the ice-covered shore of Canal Park peering at a distant Ivory Gull.
This sighting was fairly unimpressive until the gull flew over and circled the birders. The bird was easily recognized by its small size and buoyant flight. An adult Ivory Gull is pure white. This individual’s black spots and black face indicate that it is a first-winter bird.  
The next morning (2 January) we returned to Canal Park. Almost immediately the Ivory Gull flew in and landed a few feet in front of us. By this time, birders were leaving salmon fillets to attract the bird. (I suppose leaving salmon is not fundamentally different from feeding bird seed to songbirds.) Ivory Gulls are aggressive scavengers. Our bird had no trouble competing with other, larger gulls vying for the salmon.
Ivory Gulls breed in scattered arctic breeding colonies. The total population is estimated to be between 16,000 and 28,000 individuals (Caddy on MOU listerv). Caddy also reports that Canadian populations are rapidly declining. This species, with its almost complete reliance on arctic ice,  is undoubtedly threatened by global warming.


  1. Regarding this statement "By this time, birders were leaving salmon fillets to attract the bird. (I suppose leaving salmon is not fundamentally different from feeding bird seed to songbirds.)"

    In my view, it is quite different. Baiting an individual bird in close proximity to humans is not the same as leaving food out at a feeder, where local songbirds come and go as they please. Especially one like this gull or great gray owl, which doesn't normally live around humans or come into contact with us, unlike typical songbirds which visit feeders every day in urban areas.

    You mentioned that the gull came and circled over the group and landed in front of people. I don't know much about gulls compared to raptors. But that sounds to me like the gull is clearly now expecting food from humans, and has become habituated. What other reason would it have to approach humans, if it were not being fed? Is this a good thing for a wild animal that normally doesn't come into contact with humans?

    1. I feel a bit conflicted about the salmon. Feeding the bird may well be keeping it alive, and Ivory Gulls are known to be quite tame. On the other hand, it does seem a bit like cheating in order to assure the bird stays nearby. The 50 birders nearby also detracted a bit from the experience—although we would not have seen the bird without these friendly people.