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Seagulls 101: Hatching a gull
When a birding guide has a group of birders out for a morning's birding on the Olympic Peninsula along the strait down at Dungeness Landing and the gulls are finally discussed, the verbal essay goes something like this …
"Well, on the OlyPen we have many species of gull that occur here: glaucous-winged, western, herring, Thayer's, ring-billed, California, mew, Heermann's and the rare glaucous gull. They each have their own characteristics, some are really large with bubble-gum colored legs with grayish mantles, some are medium size, a couple are smallish. But we also have one other gull here that's a hybrid-cross between the western and glaucous-winged." And someone always asks, "What's it called?" And the same answer always follows, "It's a hybrid, it doesn't have a name."
… and the birding-guide goes into the characteristics of this hybrid from variations in mantle color, wingtip moons, neck streaking, leg color and all the variations of plumage this gull exhibits.
But here's where the biology lesson sometimes gets lost in the explaining, the rub ensues, and the arguments tend to get heated. So, let me share my take on this gull; this hybrid gull.
The biology lesson
Hybrid! Isn't a hybrid a mating of one species with another producing offspring that grow up looking sort of like their parents? Yes — for the most part.
And doesn't it take four years for most large gulls to reach breeding age? Yes.
And aren't there a whole bunch — thousands — of these hybrid gulls reaching breeding age and at this state of reproduction don't these hybrids breed with each other? Yes.
Then aren't these hybrids producing hatchlings that fledge to be a hybrid's hybrid-offspring?
But, you ask, aren't hybrids supposed to be sterile; incapable of reproducing? Well, not always, it just depends on how you want to look at gull biology!
Confusing? Am I saying that something isn't quite tit-for-tat in understanding a gull's biology? Well, yes I am. And why am I spending this column's wordage in this seemingly benign and silly endeavor of discussing gull hybridization? Because this hybrid scenario has been discussed to the nth degree and it's time for another way to look at these birds.
I want a gull that is recognized as a gull unique to the Salish Sea, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and to Dungeness Landing. Period. Not much to ask for, is it? So let me continue.
Fossils date gulls to the early Oligocene (some 30 million years ago). The "gull" that surfaces the earth today, classified as Larus, shows up in fossil records in the early Miocene (20mya) radiating into the Pliocene (5mya), the Pleistocene (3mya) and continues to exist into our current geo-time, the Holocene. But within gulls' evolutionary existence there occurred several geo-cataclysms which may have contributed to speciation: Ice ages.
The last ice sheet affecting life on North America was the Laurentide with its Wisconsin/Pacific Cordillera advance as far south as 48 degrees north. This era began about 110,000 years ago and ended some 10,000 years ago. And out there on the north Pacific coast during these millennia were gulls that we now call western and glaucous-winged.
And gulls did what gulls do: Procreate within the species.
That there were gulls within these populations moving around with ice sheets waning and waxing affecting population dynamics was inevitable. Probably at times some gull populations were overpopulated with — let's say — the western-type gull. And at others — the glaucous-winged-type gull.
And their overlapping in occurrence provided cross-breeding opportunities. And they produced the hybrid — the gull that would be pointed out while standing at the mouth of the Elwha River during BirdFest with birding groupies telling them the story of the hybridized gull one more time.
A gull that's probably been around for thousands of years breeding with its like hybrid, hatching and fledging more and more gulls with the same identifiable characteristics.
There is an organization that sanctions the taxonomy, classification and nomenclature of North American birds. It's known as the American Ornithologists' Union. They name the birds. Period!
You can call a bird any name you want to call it. My grandmother loved her spring yellow canaries. I know someone on the peninsula who calls a Brewer's blackbird the short-tailed grackle because she feels the PNW needs a grackle. And what about the Shipoke, Whiskey Jack, or Skunk-duck? Good names, but they're not authorized.
Yet authorized or not, I'm now proposing to hatch a gull — unofficially, yet officially. A gull for the peninsula. So let's name it — a name already is use. Can we do this? Of course we can. An unofficial official name.
Has the AOU approved this addition to their docket? No, it hasn't. Someday it might find the necessary scientific support for a specific name change. But I don't think I'm going to wait around for that to happen. So, let's hatch the Olympic gull.
P.S. They are not seagulls! They are just gulls.
Reach Denny AFMJ Van Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org.