“Gull” or “sea gull”? That’s the question, and a good place to find the answer is in the dictionary. I use Webster’s New World Dictionary, Third College Edition. Both names are addressed. “… any of various shorebirds of a worldwide family (Laridae), with large wings, slender legs, webbed feet, a strong, hooked bill, and feathers of chiefly white and gray.” The name refers to the Cornish “gullan; the Welsh “gwylan, and the Bret (British) “gwelan.”
Writers for this edition were terse in their definition of “sea gull.” “Any gull living alongside a seacoast.”
These two accepted definitions for the names used to identify these familiar birds are correct, but there is more to be added to the subject. One of my favorite books on birds is “The Birdwatcher’s Companion — An Encyclopedic Handbook of North American Birdlife.” It was written by Christopher Leahy of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and is a wealth of information for anyone interested in birds.
Leahy also gives a quick definition for “gull.” “Standard English name for the great majority of the approximately 45 members of the … family Laridae.” He then goes on for almost two pages with information on these birds. For example: “Twenty species of gulls breed in North America.” “Gulls are among the most successful birds in the modern world. They are strong fliers and swimmers. … Their diet tends to be nearly all-encompassing. They seek food not only over the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers, but also inland, where some species follow the farmer’s plow and consume the grubs of crop-eating beetles.”
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The most famous gull, at least in North America, is the California gull. California gull has a range throughout the Western states and includes Washington. There is even a statue for this bird in Salt Lake City, Utah. The gulls represented by the statue saved the state’s agricultural industry. When hordes of locusts invaded Utah and attacked the crops, thousands of California gulls arrived for dinner and wiped out the invaders.
Most gulls do live and/or nest near water. We see gulls inland, but they are always near bodies of water. They are scavengers and have learned to follow human habitation. If the refuse found on our beaches is edible, the gulls keep the shoreline clean. However, other garbage the sea dumps along the coast remains.
We’re all familiar with the glaucous-winged gull. It is the most numerous species seen in the inland waters. However, there are over a dozen other gull species in Washington. They range in size from 13 inches to over 27 inches. During the summer, most of these birds move to nesting areas along our coast or breeding grounds in the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. However, some stay in our inland waters and nest on large, flat-topped buildings as well as the man-made structures that make up the ferry terminals.
As for Leahy’s definition of “sea gull,” he concurs with Webster but adds a bit more. Yes, there is even a bit of looking down the nose in this description. “A vernacular name for any species of gull, including those which breed inland. Many people think it is the specific name for the commonest gull of their region.” For years, I’ve known that the “proper” name to use when referring to these birds is “gull.” Old habits die slowly — or not at all. I still hear “sea gull” come out of my mouth from time to time, and that’s just the way it is.
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