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