2016 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival Spotlight Bird

Franklin's gull


2016 Emily Schumacher

Original Art by Emily Schumacher

 by Ella Sorensen

Comparing Franklin’s gull to the better known California gull, Utah’s State Bird, is like comparing a ballerina to a football player. Light and buoyant, Franklin’s gulls swoop and glide through the air as elegant and graceful as any swallow on the wing. The small, rounded, black-hooded head and pigeon- like bill give Franklins gull the dove like aura of gentleness.

Most of the many  gull species occurring in Utah make ravenous use of refuse in landfills.  But Franklin’s gulls shun the dumps, favoring instead a wide array of more natural food sources especially insects. An opportunistic feeder, Franklin’s gulls have perfected numerous forging styles.

What a spectacle of great beauty is the whirling and twirling together of dragon flies, midges and other flying insects with hundreds of Franklins gulls, all performing the dance of life and death in the air. Predator pursuing and snapping with speed and surprise an unsuspecting insect from out of the swarming masses. Gulls also follow the plow in undulating waves quickly grabbing exposed ?earthworms, grubs, seeds, and sometimes a mouse.   They ride high and lightly on water, gently picking floating and emerging insects from the water’s surface or sometimes turn in rapid circles to create a vortex much like a phalarope does.  Pastures, croplands, and shallow wetlands with abundant insects quickly draw down to the ground any flock of over-flying gulls.

For 90 years, after first being described by science, this gull was called Franklin’s Rosy Gull. Sir John Franklin, a British naval officer, spent many years exploring Canada and the Arctic. The first collection of a Franklin’s gull in 1823 was erroneously tagged as a laughing gull, the similar looking eastern species. A second collection on a subsequent expedition correctly identified it as a new, previously unrecorded species. On Franklin’s last Arctic voyage to navigate and chart portions of the Northwest Passage, he sailed off into the unknown as he 129 men disappeared. Icebound, they all perished.  Franklin leaves behind a legacy of his “Lost Expedition” with numerus searches to find him and his ships, documentaries, a poem, stories and a gull named after him. The “Rosy” portion of the early name referred to a pinkish blush present on the breast feathers at certain times.

 Early explorers did not document the presence of Franklin’s gull within the Great Basin.  In 1916, Alexander Wetmore recorded the first at Bear River Bird Refuge and an increasing population followed in northern Utah marshes and sites scattered about the Great Basin. Although the gulls have expanded their breeding range and now tens of thousands of Franklin’s gulls nest regularly in interior remote marshes of places like Great Salt Lake, most sources today still erroneously list Franklin’s gull only as a gull of the prairies.

Franklin’s gulls nest in large remote colonies of emergent vegetation, often on Great Salt Lake. They share these colonies with white-faced ibis. Within a few weeks of hatching Franklin’s gull, too constrained by the limited confines of a colony, disperse far and wide; north, south, east and west like the flying seeds of a dandelion. After a few months of wandering aimlessly in search of food sources, the gulls, beaconed by forces we do not understand, give answer and begin their migration of thousands of miles  south to winter along the western coasts of South America, primarily Chile and Peru. Of North American gulls, only Franklin’s, Laughing and Sabine’s undertake these marathon migrations to winter south of the Equator.

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