CLEVELAND — On any cold and gray winter day in Cleveland, hundreds and sometimes thousands of gulls put on a maritime show as they dance and swoop around the barges and ships that carefully navigate the Cuyahoga River.
The gulls are frequently photographed alongside freighters such as "American Courage." The pics get a deserving “like,” often followed by the question, why are there so many gulls in Cleveland? Like this question on Reddit that prompted dozens of comments:
Like a gull to a freighter, we followed the question to see where the answer would take us.
Why does the river often look like something from a Hitchcock movie?
When you go to the Atlantic coast, gulls are seen hanging around shrimp vessels and fishing boats because they know that if there is bycatch, it’s probably going to be discarded, and that's just a big buffet for them.
Dr. Andy Jones, the curator of ornithology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, says it’s not quite the same here, but, nonetheless, the gulls here can eat well when hanging around the moving freighters and other vessels.
“Those huge ships, they look like they're moving slowly, but they're so big that their engines are churning and churning. And that seems to kick up the lower parts of the water, and, probably, in some cases, it's just pushing fish to the surface," Jones said.
In other cases, the pressure in the water stuns the fish, knocking them out or disorienting them to the surface, which provides an opportune time for the gulls to swoop down and have breakfast, lunch, dinner or a snack. (It's always snack time when you live that gull life.)
In the extremes of winter, the ships prove a saving grace, serving as ice breakers to open up the river for commerce and, in turn, free up some grub for the gulls.
While gulls are found in large numbers throughout the year in Cleveland, their numbers really peak in the winter as other species of gulls come from places like the Hudson Bay in Canada to the waters of Northeast Ohio where our temperatures are — even though it's hard for us to believe as we chip ice off our windshields at 6 AM — practically tropical compared to their native regions.
Originally from Tennessee and North Carolina, Jones said before he moved to Cleveland he heard about the area’s birding reputation.
“I've talked to people who've traveled the world looking at birds, and Great Lakes birding is some of the best in the world,” he said.
Spending time outside in the cold weather looking for birds, Jones said local winter birding makes one "a gull appreciator.”
"I never knew that I would get to that point. But spending really cold days out, looking at the gulls, you appreciate one how great survivors they are and also how many species there actually are," Jones said about his appreciation for the common gull and visitor gulls alike.
Our region's common species are Ring-Billed Gull and the Herring Gull, but plenty more come here only in the deepest parts of winter, mixing with common gulls seen around the area’s harbors and water source. The midwinter specialties—Glaucous Gull and Iceland Gull— are now on the radar of birders as they play a sort of eye-spy game to identify them in the mass of gulls.
“We don't have 100 species of birds to look at on a day in general. But to actually pick through the gulls is kind of a fun task,” Jones said.
Occasionally, birders discover rare vagrants that are far off their normal routes like the black-headed gull from Europe and the black-tailed gull, native to East Asia, which was found in Ashtabula County. Jones said it’s usually just one bird that got off track and ended up reaching Lake Erie. A bittersweet moment, he says, as that one species of gull likely won't make it back home.
“Those [different species] are the things that birders really get excited about because you're looking through a thousand birds that look almost all identical. Then you see one that's a little bigger or smaller, darker or the pattern is very subtle but different," Jones said.
In January 2021, his friend Chuck Slusarczyk braved the bitter wind chill for his daily observation at Cleveland’s Wendy Park to see thousands of gulls congregate at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. In the sea of gulls, he spotted with his digital camera a common gull with a not-so-common history.
According to Audubon.org, which chronicled his discovery, he noticed a ring-billed gull had a metal band around its leg. He managed to capture the band’s number and sent it to the United States Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Lab, which revealed the gull was 28 years old. As it turned out, the gull was born in 1992 at a coastal habitat near Lake Ontario near Toronto.
Cleveland and gulls have something in common
It's hard to picture downtown without gulls swooping around.
Perhaps that's because gulls and their home city share something in common—both are underrated in the eyes of outsiders.
Humans tend to discount that which is common, and it’s no different in the bird world, Jones said. People don’t like blue jays because they’re backyard birds that are aggressive. People don’t like starlings because they are not native. Dark-colored birds often get disregarded compared to colorful birds like finches.
“After you get into birds for a while, you realize all of these things [the gulls] have some pretty great merit to them," Jones said. “Yes, gulls are common.
"You can also pause and appreciate these are wild animals that have adapted to the human world, and they're still behaving as wild animals. Even though they're very familiar, they're still undertaking great migrations. They're surviving pretty harsh winters. They're very impressive birds."
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