Utah State Bird: The California Gull

By Dave Hanks

Sandpipers and Flycatchers are easily recognized as to their group. However, identification of each specific species is very tricky. “Sea Gulls” – or more properly Gulls, because some are inland birds, are also a group that is touchy to differentiate between species. There are 21 gull species in the USA and Canada. Cassia County has three that are common here: Ring-Billed, California, and Franklin’s. The California Gull is the bird of Utah history, although why it should be so named instead of Utah Gull is a mystery to me.

The California Gull is moderate size, 21 inches, has dark eyes and a red spot on its beak. It takes four years for it to reach maturity, and as a juvenile it is darkly speckled. Most of the year is spent inland, but with a migration to the coast to get through the winter. The Ring-Billed, however, is our year-round resident.

A large and very common gull of the coastline is the Herring Gull. The California looks like a smaller version of this species, except it has black legs instead of pink ones. Other common gulls of the sea coast are: Heermann’s Gull which is dark and the Mew and Laughing Gulls which are named for their calls. Our Franklin’s Gull and the more northerly Bonaparte’s have black heads.

The California Gull, like all gulls, is an opportunistic feeder. Its diet ranges from aquatic organisms, to garbage dumps, to the flies that mass along the shores of salty lakes. An unusual feeding behavior is to run through those fly groups with head down and beak open, gulping up flies as they enter the throat. Also, you probably have witnessed them following tractors plowing fields to snatch up worms and bugs that are uncovered by the plow. Besides grabbing fish remains, I have seen them grab a vole or mouse to ingest in one gulp – a food they seem fond of and will fight over.

This gull is a Mormon legend – taking up crickets that had infested fields and preserving the crops. Statues in Utah commemorate that event.

(Compare the California, with dark eye & colored dot on beak (top) with the Ring-Billed (bottom), with ring on beak & yellow eye outline)