On a recent trip to the Jersey shore (i.e., the coast of New Jersey, USA), I spent a good deal of time watching the foraging behavior of Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla). Named for their high-pitched “laughing” calls, these birds are incredibly common in practically every habitat throughout southern New Jersey. They are omnivores, eating whatever happens to be available. On the beaches of Sea Isle City and Avalon, they are quick to grab sand crabs as the waves recede, as long as they aren’t being bullied by their larger cousins (e.g., Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus), and they snag other small animals from the vegetation around the dunes. Although they may form small flocks, the gulls often forage on their own, presumably to reduce competition for the spoils. Catching a sand crab doesn’t take a group, and each gull that is successful gets to enjoy its quarry without having to fend off its neighbors who try to steal it away.
Interestingly, the availability of certain food items varies from town to town, especially the abundance of fried human “food”. In some coastal towns on the Jersey shore (e.g., Ocean City, Wildwood), there are long wooden “boardwalks”, complete with carnival rides and food stands. Families come here to have a good time and unwind, as if lying around on the beach is so stressful as to necessitate an added vacation. In reality, however, the boardwalk is everything but relaxing, and the gulls are one of the main reasons for this. Boardwalk gulls are tenacious. Boardwalk habitat is bursting with fatty human foods, in stark contrast to the more “natural” habitats found in adjacent beach towns that lack boardwalks. At the boardwalk, Laughing Gull foraging behavior is quite different. Here, they gather together in small flocks and overwhelm passersby with brute force, surprising tourists and grabbing their tasty fried food items in the fray. I watched a flock of ~10 gulls attack a man who had just purchased a hot pizza slice from Manco and Manco (i.e., Mack and Manco of yesteryear).
The alarmed man’s slice went flying and the gulls swarmed around it in a hurry. What might seem like mere happenstance is actually a strategy for the gulls. After fighting over the slice, the flock returned to the scene of the crime and waited for the next victim. It happened over and over, not mere scavenging for the occasional dropped item, but active mobbing of tourists with fresh food. I saw many people running in fear of the gulls, swatting their hands through the air in vain, with the hopes of driving these vicious scavengers away.
It’s not just pizza. Laughing Gulls at the boardwalk eat french fries, fried dumplings, funnel cakes and a variety of delicious fritters. The gulls hover like flies around a bucket of crab fries like vultures at a fresh lion kill. Why forage for sand crabs and small vertebrates in the sand dunes when there is a wealth of easy pickings along the boardwalk? The boardwalk gulls primarily eat (1) dough, (2) oil, and (3) cheese, a combination that must do a number on their general health and well being. It would be fascinating to examine the blood of Laughing Gulls throughout southern Jersey, where foraging strategies vary from town to town. I would wager that the populations that inhabit coastal towns without a boardwalk (e.g., SIC, Avalon, etc.) have lower levels of cholesterol than those in Ocean City, where fatty food is in practically endless supply. How about obesity? Lethargy? Heart health?
One thing is certain. If you’re going to the boardwalk, better hold on to your fries.