Franklin’s gull deserves to be more widely recognized and more deeply loved. It is an iconic bird of the Northern Plains, occurring only in this part of North America. It is a buoyant and beautiful bird that is sometimes conspicuous. It is often abundant. It is easily recognized.
But it is a gull.
Gulls occupy a curious place in the human imagination. Richard Bach made a gull a powerful model of persistence and self-striving in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” a 1970s bestseller. The state of Utah chose the California gull as its state bird and put up a statue to it in Salt Lake City. There, it is a symbol of deliverance from pestilence.
More often, gulls are seen as loud, unpleasant birds given to interrupting lakeside outings and leaving a mess behind. They are seen as ill-tempered scrappers, always squabbling about something.
Among birders, gulls are regarded as challenging because so many species look very much alike, and nearly every species has a series of juvenile plumages before its full adult plumage is reached. Yet gulls can be exciting, too, because rarities provide unexpected sightings and new entries on life lists.
Franklin’s gull is none of these things, except the noisy part. A big bunch of Franklin’s gulls can become very loud indeed.
That usually happens at nesting sites, and these can be extensive. Franklin’s gull is a colonial breeder, and its colonies sometimes number thousands of birds. These vary from year to year, depending on water conditions. Franklin’s gulls choose large, semi-permanent marshes. These are exactly the type most subject to periodic drought and agricultural drainage.
Our area usually has several of these colonies. For many years, the birds used a marsh in northern Nelson County northwest of Grand Forks. Others nested at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge north of Thief River Falls. These are among the easternmost nesting colonies of Franklin’s gulls.
A gull colony is unforgettable. Here’s a description by Arthur Cleveland Bent: “A breeding colony of Franklin’s gulls is one of the most spectacular, most interesting and most beautiful sights in the realm of North American ornithology. … No written words can convey any adequate idea of the beautiful, picture presented by countless thousands of exquisite birds of such delicate hues and gentle habits, as in all the activities of their closely populated communities.”
This rapturous description is remarkable because Bent knew the bird world well. He compiled life histories of all of North America’s bird species. These were published by The Smithsonian Institution in 21 volumes. The volume on gulls and terns appeared in 1921.
It’s not necessary to seek out a breeding colony to appreciate Franklin’s gulls, however. They occur in two other situations. They often follow farm tillage equipment. Sometimes, flocks of them show up above prairie cities, including Grand Forks. Here they pursue insects lifted by warm air rising from big patches of pavement. Parking lots at Columbia Mall and UND are examples.
Franklin’s is a mid-sized gull that’s distinguished by a white body and black head. There’s a distinctive pattern on the face. The eye is dark with half-moons of white above and below it. In breeding birds, the bill is reddish and the breast is flushed with pink.
The breeding range of these birds extends from western Minnesota and northeastern South Dakota diagonally northwestward into Alberta. A few isolated colonies occur south of this range.
Remarkably, Franklin’s gulls choose an entirely different habitat for their winter range. Almost all of them move to the west coast of South America, which includes some of the driest places on earth.
Two other gull species are nesters here. These are California and ring-billed gulls, two maddeningly similar species, both with white heads and gray backs. California gull is larger, but size isn’t a reliable way of distinguishing these birds.
Several other species of gulls occur here in migration. One of these, Herring gull, is large enough to be identified by size. Another, Bonaparte’s gull, is very similar to Franklin’s gull. It lacks the distinctive eye ring.
Then there are the wanderers from the Arctic. Four different Arctic gulls have been recorded in Grand Forks County. None of them are expected. It’s possible they’ll never occur again.
If they do, the appearance will send birders to their reference books.
Franklin’s gull has an Arctic connection. It is named for Sir John A. Franklin, commander of a British expedition sent to find the Northwest Passage. The party was lost in 1846, and a 168-year search ensued. The ships were found in the summer of 2014.
Several North American species have names associated with the expedition, testimony both to the 18th century obsession with natural history and the celebrity of the expedition’s leaders.