Blog Archive: Fun Facts

Birdorable Herring Gull

More Gull Frequently Asked Questions

February 22nd, 2018 in Fun Facts, Gulls No comments
Large FAQ made of gulls

When we had our first Gull Week in 2015, we answered some Frequently Asked Questions About Gulls. Today we're going to answer a few more fun FAQs about the species in this family of seabirds!

What do gulls eat? Are gulls carnivores? What do gulls drink?
Gulls tend to be opportunistic omnivores. They'll take every chance to eat almost anything! Gulls feed on fish and other marine animals. They will eat insects, worms, eggs, and small land animals. Gulls may also feed on carrion and garbage, other birds, and plant matter like seeds and fruit. As far as drinking, gulls are able to drink sea water. A special gland helps them excrete the salt before it reaches the kidneys.

What do gulls do in winter? When do gulls migrate?
Most gulls migrate between wintering grounds and breeding territory. After mating season is complete, they move to warmer climates. The specific timing of this depends on their breeding calendar. Migration distances range from the Franklin's Gull's yearly trek from Canada to South America, to species that simply disperse to the coast from more inland breeding grounds.

What are baby gulls like?
Most baby gulls have downy feathers when they hatch. In most gull species, chicks are precocial (or semi-precocial), meaning that they are relatively mobile and can leave the nesting site within a short time of hatching. Ring-billed Gulls fully leave their nest by 4 days of age. Baby Herring Gulls remain close to their nest site for the first week of life. Young gulls are typically dependent on their parents or other adult gulls for food until they fully fledge.

Red-billed Gulls with Chicks
Red-billed Gulls and Chicks by Bernard Spragg, NZ

Where do gulls go at night?
Most species of gull are diurnal, meaning they are awake during the day and at rest during the night. Gulls typically like to roost either on the water, or along beaches, dunes, or offshore islands. Sleeping on the water is only preferred when the water is calm. The exception to this is the Swallow-tailed Gull, the world's only nocturnal gull species. Instead of resting at night, they are on the hunt for food.

How can you tell how old a gull is?
This is a great part of the challenge of gull identification. There is no simple answer that covers all gull species. Gulls go through different plumages as they reach adulthood and they also go through two yearly molts.

The number of years it takes a gull to reach its full adult plumage ranges from two years for smaller gulls to three or four years for larger birds. Gulls of different ages will have different plumages.

Gulls also go through molts each spring (to "alternate plumage") and fall (to "basic plumage"). During a molt, which may take place over several weeks, the bird may appear to be in between two plumages.

In addition to the changes in a gull's feather appearance, there are changes that may occur to their legs and bills. These may change color as they age or molt!

When you know the specifics of how a species of gull ages and molts, you may be able to tell if a gull is one, two, or three years old, or an adult aged four or older.

Are gulls protected?
Sometimes gulls are considered to be nuisance birds. Their level of protection varies from place to place. In the United States, native gulls are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In the United Kingdom, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Wildlife Order 1985 (Northern Ireland).

Do gulls sing?
In general, gulls are not known for their melodious voices. Their vocalizations are often brash and loud, part of the soundtrack of the beach in many locations. Their vocalizations are typically referred to as calls, with each species utilizing a variety of different calls for communicating things like finding (or begging for) food, warning off intruders, sounding a predator alarm to the colony, and other reasons. Different calls will also be used for pair-bonding and even during copulation. Chicks have different call sounds than adults.

See our previous post for more frequently asked questions about gulls.

Birdorable Ross's Gull

Gull Week Extremes: Facts & Stats

February 19th, 2018 in Avian Extreme, Fun Facts, Gulls No comments

This week, we're celebrating gulls! There are about 55 widely recognized species of gull in the world. We'd like to share some of the extreme facts and interesting statistics found within this diverse family.

Smallest Gull Species
The Little Gull, weighing in at around 4.2 ounces (120 grams), is the smallest species of gull. Its length is  9.8 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm).

Largest Gull Species
The largest gull species in the world is the Great Black-backed Gull, which weighs in at around 62 ounces (1750 grams), almost 15 times as heavy as the Little Gull. It's length is 2.1 to 2.6 feet (64 to 79 cm). 

Compare sizes of Great Black-backed Gull and Little Gull

The Longest Living Gulls
Gulls, particularly the large "white-headed" gulls, can be long-lived. The longevity record for the European Herring Gull is 49 years! The longest-lived wild Great Black-backed Gull was over 27 years old.

Cross-Species Parenting
The Black-headed Duck of South America is known to be a brood parasite of the Brown-hooded Gull. The duck lays eggs in nests of other birds (including other ducks and other gulls) and lets the nest-owners do the incubating! The ducklings are able to leave the nest just hours after hatching, making their escape without otherwise disturbing the nest. The Brown-hooded Gull or other nesting adult will continue to care for its own eggs and chicks.

Tale of the Tails
Most species of gull have a rounded tail. There are only three exceptions: the Sabine's Gull and Swallow-tailed Gull have forked tails, and the Ross's Gull has a wedge-shaped tail.

Longest Migration
Many species of gull are migratory. The Franklin's Gull may have the longest migration of all the gulls. They breed as far north as central Canada, and spend the winter as far south as Chile and Argentina.

Franklin's Gull Migration Map

Rare Gulls & Threatened Species
The Lava Gull of the Galapagos Islands is considered to be Vulnerable to extinction. The small population of less than 400 pairs is relatively stable but the species is probably the rarest of all the gulls.

The Black-billed Gull of New Zealand is considered to be Endangered. The population has been on a rapid decline since the introduction of invasive predators to New Zealand, like weasels and cats.

Other species considered to be Vulnerable to extinction are the Relict Gull of central Asia, the Saunders's Gull of eastern Asia, and the both the Red-legged Kittiwake and the Black-legged Kittiwake.

Most Abundant
The Ring-billed Gull was once hunted for its feathers. With protection the species has rebounded and is likely the most common species of gull in North America.

Birdorable Flock of Ring-billed Gulls

Night Vision
The Swallow-tailed Gull is a "black-headed" gull found in the Galapagos Islands. They are the only completely nocturnal gulls in the world! They feed on squid and fish that only come to the water's surface at night. In order to be able to see in the dark, the Swallow-tailed Gull has very large eyes -- larger than any other gull species!

Birdorable Rosy-faced Lovebird

9 Awesome Lovebird Facts

January 20th, 2017 in Fun Facts, Lovebirds 3 comments
Birdorable Lovebirds on a branch

The nine species of lovebird in the world all belong to the genus Agapornis, which is Greek for love (agape) bird (ornis). These small and colorful parrots are known for their social affection and strong pair-bonding between lifelong monogamous mates. Their beauty and natural personalities make some of them popular species in aviculture (pet birds). Here are some facts about the species in the lovebird family.

  • Lovebirds are native to Africa. Eight species come from the mainland African continent, while the Grey-headed Lovebird is native to the island nation of Madagascar.
  • Most lovebirds have a varied diet which consists of fruits, vegetables, and seeds. Some lovebirds also eat figs and insects. The Black-collared Lovebird has a special diet in the wild, feeding on local figs. This dietary requirement makes the species one of the least popular lovebirds in the pet trade.
  • Lovebirds typically live from 10 to 15 years, but may reach up to 20 years in captivity.
  • Lovebirds are cavity nesters. Females take care of nest building, bringing material to the nest either in their beaks or tucked into their tail feathers. Red-headed Lovebirds nest in termite mounds. Established feral Rosy-faced Lovebirds in Arizona nest inside cactus plants.
  • Because of their popularity in aviculture, several species of lovebird have multiple color mutations. Some lovebird species have mutiple common names, like the Rosy-faced Lovebird, which is more commonly known as the Peach-faced Lovebird in the pet trade.
  • Most species of lovebird are not considered to be threatened by conservation experts. Lilian's Lovebird and Fischer's Lovebird both have the status of Near Threatened. The Black-cheeked Lovebird has a status of Vulnerable, facing threats from the pet bird trade, loss of habitat, and changes in local agriculture practices.
  • Lovebirds are among the smallest species of parrot. The Grey-headed Lovebird is the smallest of the lovebirds, measuring about 13 cm in length. Rosy-faced Lovebirds and Black-winged Lovebirds are the largest, measuring over 16 cm in length.
  • In most species of lovebird, males and females have similar plumage and are difficult to tell apart (if you're not a lovebird). Three species of lovebird exhibit sexual dimorphism: the Grey-headed Lovebird (named after the male -- females are entirely green); the Black-winged Lovebird (males have red at the forehead that the female lacks); and the Red-headed Lovebird (the male has more red in the head than the female).
  • Rosy-faced Lovebirds, known more commonly as Peach-faced Lovebirds in aviculture, are among the most popular of all pet birds. There are many different color mutations and understanding Peach-faced Lovebird genetics can be somewhat complicated.
Birdorable Blue Jay

Fun Facts About Blue Jays

April 29th, 2016 in Blue Jays, Fun Facts, Jays 6 comments
Blue Jay

Blue Jays are large, bold songbirds that live across much of North America. They are common throughout their range, which includes the eastern two-thirds of the continent. Here are some facts about this familiar and widespread species.

  • There are at least four subspecies of Blue Jay accepted by most authorities. The Florida Blue Jay weighs an average of just 74 grams, while Northern Blue Jays weigh in at 92 grams or more. Plumage differences between the subspecies are subtle, with some birds showing brighter plumage than others. The other two subspecies are the Coastal Blue Jay and the Interior Blue Jay.
  • Blue Jays are omnivorous. They feed on a wide variety of food items, including large insects, acorns, bird seed, frogs, carrion, eggs from other birds, berries, and more. They love peanuts!
Blue Jay
Blue Jay by Martin Cathrae [CC BY-SA 2.0]
  • Blue Jays are in the Corvid family, a group of birds that includes crows and ravens and is known for intelligence and curiosity.
  • Blue Jays are generally year-round residents throughout most of their range. Birds may move seasonally depending on availability of food. But jays are also known to migrate in huge flocks around the Great Lakes and on the Atlantic coast. The reasons for this great movement is a mystery.
  • Blue Jays are skilled mimics. They are able to impersonate the calls of other birds, including raptors. A Blue Jay may mimic the call of a Red-tailed Hawk or a Red-shouldered Hawk in order to frighten other birds off of feeders so the jay can eat in peace. Calling out as a raptor may also serve to determine if any actual predatory birds are in the area.
  • Blue Jays are known to mob potential predators. A Blue Jay or a group of jays that finds a predator, like a bird of prey or a snake, will call out a warning to other birds. They will also chase or dive-bomb predators to get them to leave the area.
  • Blue Jays can raise or lower their crests. A crest at rest means the bird is relaxed. A raised crest indicates agression or excitement.
  • Adult male and female Blue Jays look alike. They have the same coloration all year.
Blue Jay
Blue Jay gathering nest material by Amy Evenstad for Birdorable
  • Blue Jays mate for life.
  • The longevity record for a Blue Jay living in captivity is over 26 years. The record for wild Blue Jays is over 17 years. This is known via bird banding programs.
  • Blue Jays are particularly susceptible to West Nile virus. The disease can deccimate populations locally, but recent outbreaks have not significantly affected the global Blue Jay population.
  • The Blue Jay is the official bird of the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island.
Birdorable Eurasian Magpie

Happy Magpie Day!

March 14th, 2016 in Fun Facts, Holidays, Magpies 2 comments
Two black-billed Magpies on a branch

Today, March 14, is traditionally celebrated as Pi Day -- because when the date is written 3/14, it represents the first three significant numbers of Pi. Pie day may be celebrated by eating pie, but since we like birds, today seems like a good day to celebrate the family of birds that has pie right in the name: Magpies!

There are three groups of true magpies. The four species of magpie in the genus Pica are the Holarctic, or black-and-white, magpies. The nine species of Oriental magpie are generally blue-green and are in the Urocissa genus and the Cissa genus. The azure-winged magpie belongs in the genus Cyanopica. Here are some fun facts about this group of intelligent and curious birds.

  • Magpies belong to the Corvid family, which makes them closely related to birds like jays, crows, and ravens.
  • The cartoon characters Heckle and Jeckle are a pair of magpies.
  • There are several collective nouns used to describe a group of magpies, including "a gulp of magpies" and "a mischief of magpies."
  • Magpies aren't the only birds with "pie" in their name. Another group in the Corvid family is the treepies. One bird in this group has a confusing name: the Black Magpie of Asia.
  • Another bird with a confusing name is the Australian Magpie. This species isn't a magpie at all! Although its black-and-white plumage is very magpie-like, this species belongs in a different genus and is closely related to the Butcherbirds of Australasia.
  • A recent taxonomical split may have added a new species of magpie to the list. The Azure-winged Magpie has an usual fragmented range with part of the population in southwestern Europe and part over in eastern Asia. Some ornithologists consider the two populations to be separate species, naming the European bird the Iberian Magpie.
  • The Javan Green Magpie is the most endangered species of magpie. Endemic to Indonesia, it is considered to be Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Other endemic species of magpie include the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, found only in Sri Lanka, and the Yellow-billed Magpie, found only in the U.S. state of California.
Birdorable Superb Fairywren

Bird Term: Sexual Dimorphism

November 12th, 2015 in Bird Terms, Fun Facts 4 comments
Supurb Fairy Wrens

Sexual dimorphism refers to observable differences between males and females of the same species. In basic terms, it means that a male of a species is easily distinguished from a female. In birds this usually means differences in size or in plumage. It can also be noted in behavior differences and other traits.

Earlier on this blog we talked about the extreme sexual dimorphism in Eclectus Parrots, where males and females show extreme differences in their plumage: males are bright green while females are shades of red and blue.

Sexual dimorphism exists in most species of raptor. In birds of prey, males are often smaller than the females of the species. However, this is often difficult to discern in wild birds, especially if seen at a distance or when only one bird is present.

Many common birds also exhibit sexual dimorphism. Male ducks are often colorful, while females tend to be drab. You can see this in the common Mallard.

Mallard ducks
Mallard ducks by Connor Mah (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In songbirds, males may be brightly colored while females have a similar plumage with more muted tones, as seen in Baltimore Orioles, American Robins, Eastern Towhees, and Black-throated Blue Warblers.

Eastern Towhee, female and male
Eastern Towhees: female (left) by Brian Henderson (CC BY-NC 2.0), male (right) by Dendroica cerulea (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In other birds, like the Eclectus Parrot mentioned above, the plumage differences are extreme. Examples of this can also be seen in the Superb Fairywren of Australia, and the Sage Grouse.

Can you think of other bird species where the male is easily told apart from the female? Do you have birds like this where you live? What about birds that aren't sexually dimorphic? Can you think of species where male and females are impossible to tell apart by looking at them?