Bird Fact Friday: New Thinking on the Avian Brain

Adapted from pages 17 of Bird Brain:

The 1990s saw a flurry of interesting studies on avian behaviors thought to be uniquely human or only seen in great apes. Gavin Hunt found that New Caledonian crows made two different types of tools—Pandanus leaf and hook stick—that were used for different tasks. Irene Pepperberg revealed previously unheard-of linguistic abilities in a language-trained African grey parrot called Alex. Nicky Clayton and Tony Dickinson developed a method based on caching to discover that Western scrub jays thought about specific past events, so-called episodic-like memory.

In parallel to the exciting findings in avian cognition were findings from avian neuroscience. Bird brains were found to do things not seen in mammalian brains that could explain how birds could achieve identifiable cognitive feats with brains much smaller than mammals. Bird brains could support multitasking, with one hemisphere controlling one behavior (such as looking out for predators) while the other hemisphere controlled a different behavior simultaneously (such as looking for food). Adult brains could produce new neurons (neurogenesis)—either seasonally, as in the case of the hippocampus or song control system, or when needed, such as remembering caching events.

Edinger’s earlier ideas on the avian brain were questioned by studies on neuroanatomy, neurochemistry, evolution, and development with the result that in 2004 a complete change was made to the naming of the parts of the avian brain, reflecting a new understanding of how it had evolved. No longer was the avian forebrain seen as consisting of the striatum; rather the forebrain evolved from a pallium shared with ancestral reptilian and mammalian cousins. These new findings placed the new study of avian cognition on a strong foundation—so much so that more recent findings suggest the term “birdbrain” should now be used as a compliment not an insult!

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: The Evolution of Avian Intelligence

Adapted from pages 14-15 of Bird Brain:

Despite there being almost 10,000 species of birds, only a few have yet to be studied for their cognitive abilities. Some, based on their lifestyles and relative brain size, such as this woodpecker (left), hornbill, and falcon (right), are likely to also demonstrate smart behavior in intelligence tests.

The species lived in splendid isolation on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean until contact with European sailors in the seventeenth century led to its extinction in just a few decades. Although the relatives of dodos (pigeons and doves) are not thought of as the smartest of birds, can we put the dodo’s demise down to its own stupidity? Certainly, having no natural predators and not having had much contact with humans before the seventeenth century, they had little or no reason to fear us. If dodos had had the capacity for rapid learning, perhaps they might have adapted quickly and learned to escape their human hunters, but they were up against the most efficient and effective killer the planet has ever seen. Given the dodo’s clumsy body design—large and flightless—and that it had nowhere to run, it’s clear that dodos were in the wrong place at the wrong time, though being stupid didn’t help! 

More than 50 percent of birds are members of the songbird family or passerines. In fact, most of the birds we encounter every day in our gardens and parks are passerines, including sparrows, thrushes, finches, titmice, robins, blackbirds, and crows. Although not all members of this family are melodious singers, as anyone who has experienced the loud cawing of a crow will testify, all learn vocalizations specific to their species and, indeed, have evolved a special brain circuit to do so. This ability, rare in the animal kingdom, shares properties with human language which will be examined in Chapter 3.

Although birds have been studied with respect to the structure and function of their brains, their learning, and cognition for over a century, very little is known about the cognitive abilities of more than a tiny proportion of species. Most species are not kept in laboratories and thus are unavailable for experimental study, so our best ideas about their intelligence are only guesses based on their relative brain size (in comparison to their body size; see Chapter 1), their diet, social system, habitat, and life history (how long the species lives and how long the young take to develop to independence). These clues help build a picture of what these species may need their brains for—finding food, relating to others, building a home—but without being able to run experiments the picture can only be a sketch. Nonetheless, this technique is still useful for making predictions as to how intelligence may have evolved, specifically in those species we would expect to be the intellectual heavyweights. Three groups of birds— woodpeckers, hornbills, and falcons—possess some or all of the traits displayed by species known to be smart (The Clever Club; Chapter 1) but have yet to be tested. All three groups are outside the passerines but are closely related, so any cognitive skills they may have are likely to have evolved independently (that is, not from a common ancestor).

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: What is intelligence?

Adapted from page 12 of Bird Brain:

What do we mean when we say that an animal is intelligent? Scientists mean something specific by intelligence, especially in creatures without language: the ability to flexibly solve novel problems using cognition rather than mere learning and instinct.

Intelligence in action is the application of cognition outside of the context in which it evolved. An animal may have evolved a specific skill that enables it to deal with a particular ecological problem, such as predicting the behavior of group members or distinguishing large from small quantities, but it cannot use these same skills to address different problems for which the skills did not evolve. However, the flexibility to be able to transfer those skills is probably what distinguishes intelligent from cognitive species.

Merlina is one of the ravens at the Tower of London. She has formed a strong bond with Chris Skaife, the Raven master, but also likes carrying around sticks and even plays dead to the delight of the crowds who come to see her antics. Photo credit: Chris Skaife

Cognition refers to the processing, storage, and retention of information across different contexts. In the wild, birds use cognition to process information, enabling them to survive but not necessarily to solve problems. A pigeon that distinguishes foods from non-foods does not need to stretch its mental muscles as much as a crow that creates and modifies a tool to reach a grub hidden inside a tree trunk, fashioning the tool to the correct length in order to reach the treat. Both are challenges related to procuring food, but one requires a wider range of skills than the other.

One important consideration is that intelligence is not a mechanism. A specific behavior can be perceived as intelligent based on its outcome—such as the solving of a problem—but that does not mean that this solution is achieved using similar processes to those used by a human. The animal may employ sophisticated cognitive processes—perhaps using imagination (thinking about objects, events, and actions not currently available to perception), or forward planning (prospection), or requiring an understanding of how events (actions) are related to their consequences (causal reasoning)— and these cognitive acts may be variously deployed in different contexts. But they may also be the result of trial-and-error learning (learning the best course of action after repeated experiences of the same event) or simpler cognitive processes for which that particular species has evolved a solution. The specific mechanisms underlying animal behavior are frequently the object of controversy and debate, especially in creatures more distantly related to us. This book attempts to present different perspectives on what may underlie seemingly intelligent bird behavior: from instinct, learning, and cognition to imagination, forethought, and insight.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
By Nathan Emery with a foreword by Frans de Waal

Birds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday: A Basic Approach to Gull ID

Adapted from page 23-24 of Gulls Simplified:

For all their inherent challenges, gulls do present students of birds with ID advantages.

Most gulls are readily distinguishable as gulls, members of the family Laridae, simplifying the identification process by eliminating the need to initially assign an unidentified bird to a broader grouping or family.

Gulls are mostly large enough to note key differentiating traits relating to bill and head shape, eye color, leg color, and overall plumage characteristics, such as the color of the bird’s upper back (silver gray vs. charcoal gray). In addition, gulls typically stay in the open, where they are easily viewed. Insofar as they are often found in places people frequent, gulls are mostly habituated to us and allow prolonged scrutiny and close approach.

Gulls are typically found in open spaces, such as this beachfront in Daytona Beach, Florida (January), and often in areas people frequent on a regular basis. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Gulls are gregarious, often gathering in mixed-species flocks that facilitate direct comparison between known species and less familiar ones—a boon to identification and one that supports a dynamic comparative ID approach. Knowing the identity of a gull standing next to a mystery gull presents observers with a point of reference for size, shape (slender vs. bulky), bill shape, back color (silver gray vs. charcoal gray vs. black), and body shape (plump breasted vs. slender bodied).

While gulls do present an array of plumages typically arranged by successive molts (replacement of feathers), we find that these plumages—especially among the larger, white-headed gulls—may be combined into three broad, manageable age classes. These age classes correspond to the terms that birders commonly use to organize other bird groups, most notably raptors, according to plumage. These age designations are immature, subadult, and adult (breeding and nonbreeding).

Further clarification can then be added to these basic age groups, such as immature/juvenile, immature/1st or 2nd winter, or advanced or retarded immature or subadult. The term “advanced” refers to a plumage state at a particular age that is more complete than usual for a species, and the term “retarded” means that the plumage is less complete than usual at a particular age.

Most smaller to medium-sized gulls take only two years to reach full or mostly adult plumage, and these species typically replace their juvenile upper back feathers in early fall with adultlike grayish feathers. Larger gulls typically take three to four years to achieve full adult plumage, and most typically
acquire various amounts of adultlike upperpart feathers in their second or third year. 

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday – Traditional Gull ID Problems

Adapted from pages 20-22 of Gulls Simplified:

Why has gull identification been presented as such a feather-splitting challenge? First, we humans seem obsessed by the need to find and classify differences, whether these have a bearing on species differentiation or not—that is, we like splitting hairs, or in this case, feathers. Fine and well; who doesn’t enjoy a challenge?

This photo shows two common species in the left foreground. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

But gulls, because of their complex plumage array, simply overwhelm most observers.

Also exacerbating the challenge of gull identification is the avocational focus on finding birds that are outside their conventional range—that is, “rare birds.” By placing added value on finding Slaty-backed Gulls or Yellow-legged Gulls
among the ranks of far likelier but similar species, we at times complicate the identification challenge. This almost mandates that plumage be the foundation of gull identification insofar as differences between similar species, particularly
those found within an evolving species complex, are mostly feather deep.

But if we embrace the nature of probability and accept that rare and unusual species are unlikely to be encountered, the challenge presented by North American gulls becomes greatly simplified, reduced to telling Ring-billed Gull from Herring Gull and California Gull, birds whose size and structural differences do readily distinguish them. Instead of fighting probability by aspiring to find birds outside their normal range, we advocate embracing probability and letting it work for you, not against you.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday – Iceland Gull

Adapted from page 118-119 of Gulls Simplified:

An adult Iceland Gull has a round head; gentle expression; very pale silver-gray back; short pink legs; and a short, slender, bullet-shaped bill. Photo credit: Lloyd Spitalnik.

The Iceland Gull is a smallish, plumpish-bodied, round-headed, petite-billed, short-legged, uniformly pale gull nestled amid the collage of contrastingly patterned Herring Gulls clustered on the beach.

This medium-large, pleasingly proportioned gull is smaller, plumper breasted, and shorter legged than Herring Gull, and typically distinctly smaller and less bulky than the similarly plumaged Glaucous Gull, from which Iceland may be distinguished by its longer wings that extend well beyond the tail of standing birds (generally a bill length beyond the tail). In adult birds, primaries range from white or light gray to charcoal gray, and to black in Thayer’s Gull, a subspecies of Iceland Gull.

Iceland’s bill ranges from petite and bullet shaped to fairly long, with a decurved tip on larger birds. The bill is mostly dark on immature/1st winter birds, but some birds can show a pinkish to yellowish bill with an ill-defined black tip at this age. Immature Glaucous Gull’s larger bill is richer pink and has a more sharply demarcated dark tip compared to that of immature Iceland. A round head, short neck, and shortish legs
impart a plumpish, pigeon-like impression to many Iceland Gulls (an attribute never applied to the bulky, barrel-chested Glaucous Gull). In winter, the head of adult Iceland shows limited to no streaking, except for the Thayer’s subspecies, which can show a heavily streaked head and neck. In a mixed flock with Herring Gulls, Iceland’s (Kumlien’s) smaller size and plain, pale, uniform plumage stand out.

Thayer’s subspecies of Iceland Gull (thayeri) averages intermediate in size and structure between large Kumlien’s Iceland Gull and small Herring Gull, but its adult plumage is much closer to that of Herring Gull with respect to the gray shading of its upperparts and black wing tips. While many adult Thayer’s have dark eyes, some birds on the Pacific coast have pale to dusky eyes, so this field mark is not absolute. Rather than including extensive ID criteria for the Thayer’s subspecies here, we ask that you please refer to captions in the Thayer’s subspecies section of Iceland Gull at the end of this account for characteristics that distinguish it from Kumlien’s Iceland Gull and Herring Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday – Antpittas

Adapted from pages 310-311 of Birds of Central America:

A table of different Antpittas. Illustrated by Dale Dyer.

The Black-Crowned Antpitta is a distinctive species with no close relatives in the region, specifically Cemtral and Sothern America. They are uncommon and local residents in south foothills (mainly 300 to 1200 m, locally near SL in east PA). These birds are large and robust with very short tail, long legs, and heavy gray bill. Identifiable by the bold black- and- white scaling on underparts. Note the white spots on wing coverts, and that the males have black throats. Pairs or solitary birds bound rapidly over forest floor pausing briefly to stand on fallen log or other low perch. They are generally reclusive but attends ant swarms where it forages boldly. Habitually flicks wings and tail. Song (1) a very long series of loud, sharp notes wi- i- i- i- ii- i- i- i . . . that gradually slow and drop in pitch. May continue for almost one minute. Also (2) an abrupt, low- pitched, guttural three- to ten- note rattle kuk kuk kuk . . . or wucwuc- wuc- wuc . . ..

Meanwhile, the Scaled Antpitta is found from Mexico to Southern America. It is an uncommon to rare and local resident in foothills and highlands (100 to 2850 m in north, 450 to 1650 m in south). Also home to the volcanic highlands of El Salvador (Santa Ana), and recently reported from Cerro Musún in central Matagalpa, Nicaragua. These birds are plump and short- tailed. Note the gray crown scaled with black and pale malar and lores. Underparts mostly cinnamon with variable, narrow, pale crescent dividing throat and breast. Rump and wings are rufous- brown. Juveniles are mostly dusky with fine whitish and buff streaking on crown, nape, mantle, and breast. Adults from north CA are less richly colored below. These birds hop rapidly over ground and are secretive, but may forage in open on muddy forest trails or in shaded clearings. May also attend ant swarms, but are usually solitary. They are also known to sing briefly at daybreak. Song (1) a series of low- pitched, resonant notes that start as a trill, rise in pitch and volume, then slow to form distinct, hollow, individual notes before stopping abruptly huhuhuhHUHUuhuhu hu hu hu. Compare with song of Black- headed Antthrush. Calls include (2) a low- pitched grunt or croak.

Birds of Central America
Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama
By Andrew C. Vallely and Dale Dyer

Birds of Central America is the first comprehensive field guide to the avifauna of the entire region, including Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. Handy and compact, the book presents text and illustrations for nearly 1,200 resident and migrant species, and information on all rare vagrants. Two hundred sixty detailed plates on convenient facing-page spreads depict differing ages and sexes for each species, with a special focus on geographic variation. The guide also contains up-to-date range maps and concise notes on distribution, habitat, behavior, and voice. An introduction provides a brief overview of the region’s landscape, climate, and biogeography.

The culmination of more than a decade of research and field experience, Birds of Central Americais an indispensable resource for all those interested in the bird life of this part of the world.

  • Detailed information on the entire avifauna of Central America
  • 260 beautiful color plates
  • Range maps, text, and illustrations presented on convenient facing-page spreads
  • Up-to-date notes on distribution supported by an extensive bibliography
  • Special focus on geographic variation of bird species

Bird Fact Friday — Ross’s Gull

Adapted from page 186 of Gulls Simplified:

Ross’s Gull is a small, pink-breasted gull plucking edible tidbits from the defunct walrus.  Ross’s is only slightly larger than Little Gull, with a longer, more tapered rear body, a petite bill, and more slender and pointier wings that are grayish below, not black as on adult Little Gull. The long, wedge-shaped tail attenuates to a tapered point (Little Gull has a somewhat squarish, slightly wedgeshaped tail). Standing birds appear elegantly long winged, with short, pink to reddish legs set well forward.

An adult breeding Ross’s Gull. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

Where can you find this gull? You should be so lucky. For many years, one or two pairs famously nested in the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, and small to large numbers are noted annually migrating past Barrow, Alaska, from September to mid-October. Most birds winter at sea near pack ice, but rare vagrants to the lower forty-eight states have been found in harbors and sewage-treatment facilities, as well as far offshore. This diminutive, fairylike gull breeds on open tundra in Arctic Canada and Greenland, often close to freshwater lakes, and winters in northern seas, rarely wandering to the lower forty-eight states. When it occurs in the lower forty-eight, it is typically found among flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls and is often mistaken for the similarly plumaged Little Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — Hybrid Gulls

Adapted from page 189 of Gulls Simplified:

Many gull species are closely related, with their evolutionary divergence fairly recent, and their geographic isolation is not always absolute. In fact, the ranges of some genetically similar species overlap. Because of this fertile combination of genetic similarity and physical proximity, hybridization between similar species currently considered distinct is both likely and problematic.

The offspring of theses hybrid combinations often show traits of both parent species, making identification challenging, or may show the physical traits of one species but some plumage features of the other species. Being themselves fertile, these hybrid gulls may then backcross—that is, breed with either parent species or with another hybrid gull—further muddying the ID picture. Hybrids are not countable as distinct species by any ornithological organization.

The Glaucous-winged × Western Gull has the stocky body and heavy bill typical of Western Gull, as well as the head shape of that species with a bump on the crown. However, the back is gray like that of Glaucous-winged, but the wing tips are too dark for that species. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson

For example, the Glaucous-Winged × Western Gull is the most common hybrid gull encountered in North America, and it occurs mostly on the Pacific coast from California to British Columbia. In certain areas of northern Oregon and southern Washington, hybrids may outnumber pure individuals of both species. Some hybrids resemble Western Gulls,especially in body and bill structure, but show some plumage traits of Glaucous-winged, while others resemble Glaucous-winged in structure and bill shape but show some plumage features of Western Gull.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

Bird Fact Friday — the Ivory Gull

Adapted from page 177 and 182 of Gulls Simplified:

The Ivory Gull is a “Dark Horse Gull” or, a gull you are most unlikely to encounter in North America, but should be aware of. Some of these may be found at appropriate times of year in very remote locations that average birders don’t typically visit, while others are rare vagrants whose presence cannot be predicted.

An immature Ivory Gull, photographed in New Jersey. Credit: Kevin Karlson

Smaller than Iceland Gull, Ivory Gull is slightly smaller than Ring-billed Gull but stockier and plumper overall. Ivory Gull is our only pure white gull with black legs and black eyes (thus eliminating the possibility of albinism in other species).

Ivory Gull is often described as an aggressive and voracious feeder—a trait that serves a bird that lives very literally on the edge. It is somewhat pigeon-like on land but wheeling and nimble in flight, with quick wing beats. Mostly solitary and somewhat nocturnal, it is reported to investigate anything red. It is always found near water, even cattle watering troughs if nothing more suitable is around.

This distinctive but rarely seen all-white Arctic gull is typically found foraging around pack ice, where it makes a decent living scavenging the remains of polar bear kills. Vagrants often feed on fish scraps near fishing piers or docks where boats dump their bycatch.

They are rarely away from their high Arctic breeding locations with pack ice, in Greenland and extreme northern Canada. In winter, they are found almost exclusively near pack ice, with wintering areas in the Bering Sea and Labrador Sea to Davis Strait. Occurs casually to the Canadian Maritimes and is accidental south to New Jersey and other scattered locations. There are a few inland records, including Tennessee, with most clustered around the Great Lakes. It is very rare south of Canada.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday — the Great Black-Backed Gull

Adapted from page 155 & 158 of Gulls Simplified:

This very large, menacing-looking gull (it truly is the largest gull in the world) has a big, squarish or oval-shaped head and a heavy bill. This barrel-chested gull is typically noticeably larger and always chestier than Herring Gull, with a larger, broader head, thicker neck, and distinctly heavier bill. Dull pink legs are long, thick, and set at midspan, accentuating the bird’s barrel-chested appearance.

Adults have a dark charcoal to black back and a white head, while immature birds are spangled or granite patterned with gray, white, and black upperparts and a white head. This contrasting pattern stands out among the brownish-gray immatures and gray-backed adult ranks of Herring Gulls.

Great Black-backed is a fairly sedentary gull, spending much of its time loafing on the beach, resting on the water, or standing atop an elevated post or light fixture. It walks somewhat reluctantly, with a waddling sailor’s gait. This species generally dominates other gulls when food is available and frequently displaces other gulls from prime perches. It is often found with other large, white-headed Gulls, especially Herring Gulls. Much smaller Ring-billed Gulls go out of their way to avoid any interaction with this species.

Great Black-backed Gull is typically the largest and huskiest gull on the Atlantic
beachfront or Great Lakes shorelines, or anywhere else it is found, since it is the largest gull in the world. Photo credit: Kevin Carlson

A consummate kleptoparasite (stealer of another’s food), Great Black-backed often robs cormorants, other gulls, and seabirds of fish and other food items. This species is also highly predatory. It is known to harass diving birds, such as coots (which can’t stay underwater very long), to exhaustion and then grasp the debilitated bird by the head, killing it outright or, failing that, drowning its victim. Kevin [Karlson, co-author of Gulls Simplified] once saw an adult Great Black-backed kill and swallow whole a Northern Flicker that had been sitting exhausted on a beach in New York during fall migration.

This is a fairly common gull that is typically found on Atlantic coast beaches, where it is a resident species, as well as on the Great Lakes, where it is also resident and increasing in numbers. Lesser numbers are found south to Florida (mostly on the Atlantic coast), where it is also increasing.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull

 

Bird Fact Friday — Mew Gull

Adapted from pages 112, 115 of Gulls Simplified:

Mew Gull is a medium-small, nimble, somewhat elegant gull with a refreshingly uncomplicated plumage pattern. Physical profile is horizontal, somewhat tern-like, with a short neck, round head, and petite bill. Ring-billed and California Gulls have longer, blunter, and more classically hooktipped bills.

As our smallest “white-headed gull,” Mew Gull is most commonly confused with the larger Ring-billed Gull but is more delicately proportioned, with a rounder head and a more slender, pointy, thrush-like bill. Dusky eyes on Mew Gull impart a gentle expression (although some individuals have paler, amber-colored eyes). Darker primaries extend well beyond the tail and are often slightly elevated. Observers may find structural commonality between this species and kittiwakes (mostly pelagic gulls).

This classic adult breeding Mew Gull shows an unmarked yellow bill, yellowish legs, and a dusky eye with a red orbital ring. Photo credit: Kevin Karlson.

Mew Gulls are very social and are often seen loafing on beaches or foraging together. They use several foraging techniques: fluttering low and slow over water with their head turned down and legs dangling; sitting high on the water and swimming buoyantly while turning in the manner of a feeding phalarope; or swimming hard against the current, snapping up edibles as they pass. Loafing birds tend to cluster, sometimes near Ring-billed and California Gulls, but in general they avoid larger species. On land they forage by walking and sometimes catch insects in flight.

Common far-northern breeder from Alaska east to upper western Canada, and a common winter visitor along the West Coast from Washington south to the upper Baja California coastline, but rare elsewhere. Mew Gull occurs year-round in lower coastal Alaska.

In winter, Mew is usually found in nearshore ocean waters, often foraging over kelp beds, and it occurs inland in several locations where it follows large rivers. It also frequents inlet estuaries, sewage outflows, and treatment facilities. Inland it visits short-grass pastures, plowed fields, and sewage treatment ponds, but less typically landfills. Mew Gull also inhabits cities and towns, such as Anchorage, Alaska, where it sits on buildings and forages for scraps of human food in streets and parks. While this species feeds primarily on natural food sources in winter, it occasionally mobs humans for handouts near breeding sites in Alaskan cities when people foolishly take out a few morsels of food to feed the cute gulls nearby.

Gulls Simplified
A Comparative Approach to Identification
By Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson

This unique photographic field guide to North America’s gulls provides a comparative approach to identification that concentrates on the size, structure, and basic plumage features of gulls—gone are the often-confusing array of plumage details found in traditional guides.

Featuring hundreds of color photos throughout, Gulls Simplified illustrates the variations of gull plumages for a variety of ages, giving readers strong visual reference points for each species. Extensive captions accompany the photos, which include comparative photo arrays, digitized photo arrays for each age group, and numerous images of each species—a wealth of visual information at your fingertips. This one-of-a-kind guide includes detailed species accounts and a distribution map for each gull.

An essential field companion for North American birders, Gulls Simplified reduces the confusion commonly associated with gull identification, offering a more user-friendly way of observing these marvelous birds.

  • Provides a simpler approach to gull identification
  • Features a wealth of color photos for easy comparison among species
  • Includes detailed captions that explain identification criteria and aging, with direct visual reinforcement above the captions
  • Combines plumage details with a focus on size, body shape, and structural features for easy identification in the field
  • Highlights important field marks and physical features for each gull