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A Tale of Two Gulls

On Thursday of last week, an Ivory Gull was discovered in Flint, Michigan, prompting the sort of delightful madness that overcomes the birding community when a bird like this turns up anywhere away from northern Alaska. For a few days dozens of birders enjoyed the thin, pale fluke as it foraged along the Flint River, seemingly eating regularly and appearing more or less healthy right up until the moment it didn’t. On Monday it was discovered dead, and packed off to be preserved as a study skin at a University of Michigan museum. A sad, if noble and productive, end.

The Michigan Ivory Gull in more active times. Photo: Brendan Klick / Macaulay Library

This is the second arctic gull this year to meet an end that was documented by birders. The Half Moon Bay, California, Ross’s Gull from this past January saw a much more dramatic fate. That bird was seemingly a victim of its naiveté, becoming the target a pair of resident Peregrine Falcons, but who is to say that conditions wouldn’t have met the same end as so many Ivory Gulls have. Arctic species rarely manage well in the lower latitudes, and gulls in particular seem to be susceptible to aspergillosis, a fungal infection that seems to stems from eating moldy food. It remains to be seen whether the Michigan Ivory Gull suffered from the respiratory ailment that results from such an infection, but aspergillosus has felled Ivory Gulls in Georgia and Minnesota in recent years.

In the case of both gulls there was a fair bit of sadness. While we all sort of understand that the ultimate fate of many birds that end up in many places that are unfamiliar to them is, with a few exceptions, the same as what befell these two gulls, we are rarely faced with that fact so overtly.

There has been no shortage of drama surrounding the welfare of birds from the far north venturing south where they are, well, some might call it besieged, by birders and photographers who wish to see them. Northern owls, with their impressive size and rarity and innate indifference to humans, seem to attract the majority, but arctic gulls get no small amount, too. People get attached to individuals, especially lost ones, and their death often invokes hand-wringing and guilt, as if any birder could have made the aspergillosus bite less or kept the peregrines at bay.

It is not my intention to judge birders for how they relate to this, or any, bird. I think that we are capable of both succumbing to the draw of seeing an Ivory Gull and also expressing concern about whether the presence of this bird in this place is a troubling harbinger of the conditions in its range. In fact, I’d argue that we should do both. Nor does sadness at the passing of this bird mean we care any less for the issues that concern our familiar resident species, like reflective surfaces on buildings and feral cats. We birders contain multitudes, after all.

We ascribe meaning to these lost birds because it means something to us. To our community and to our passion and to the memories that we choose to make. It’s remarkable enough that we cross paths with these birds in the first place, and the pleasure in the interaction doesn’t need to fade even when we are assured of the bird’s fate.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
  • Matt Brady

    A couple of minor corrections: the recent California Ross’s Gull was in Half Moon Bay, not Monterey, and neither of California’s two Ivory Gulls were found dead, they both disappeared (and then probably died, but out of sight of birders).

    • Your right, got the ROGU mixed up with the BTGU.

  • Pete

    I got word of the Flint Ivory Gull on Friday morning and my boss (awesome guy!) let me jet out early to go see. It was a great to be able to see it and the fact that I took my two daughters to see made it even better. It was hard to hear of its death.

  • Kathleen MacAulay

    Some good food for thought here. As a wildlife vet I often have a hard time enjoying seeing rare birds while knowing how far the odds are stacked against them – one of several reasons I rarely chase rarities. Last year I made an exception for the Duluth IVGU and was “lucky” enough to see it weakened and struggling to walk, only hours before it disappeared forever. Not exactly a feel-good sighting.
    Readers might be interested to know that aspergillosis in wild birds has nothing to do with mouldy food but is the product of an impaired immune system (due to stress/poor nutrition/other disease state such as toxicities etc.), exposure to mould spores from the environment and susceptibility to the fungus (northern species are generally more vulnerable).

    • JD Bergeron

      Thanks for adding this, Kathleen. I had a similar message to share from International Bird Rescue’s Staff Veterinarian Rebecca Duerr DVM MPVM PhD:

      “Although birds can acquire several problems from eating moldy foods just like the rest of us (think aflatoxin and other nasty substances that cause cancers, liver damage, and neurologic diseases), aspergillosis is not usually acquired by ingestion. Rather, it is generally due to inhalation of fairly ubiquitous Aspergillus spp. spores present in the air of most terrestrial environments combined with an immune system not competent to deal with it. Birds highly stressed by being in poor nutritional condition, injured, or geographically out of place in a new environment that exposes them to a heavy load of spores may break with the disease. Marine air is not usually full of aspergillus spores, hence many seabirds are known to be especially susceptible to inhaled fungal spores.”

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