The car pulled up and a passenger tossed several handfuls of bread onto the asphalt. Within seconds a ring-billed gull glided in for a landing and inspected the free meal. Nearby, four more gulls sat atop a light post.
The scene I watched unfold recently at the K-Mart Plaza on Route 5 in Holyoke is common, and one that state officials hope to curb.
As Stan Freeman noted in a recent article appearing in The Republican, the gulls are drawn inland by the promise of easy foraging — but the problems associated with a large gull population extend beyond the parking lots of big-box stores and fast food restaurants where they’re often seen. Daniel E. Clark of the Division of Water Supply Protection for the Massachussetts Department of Conservation and Recreation explained to Freeman:
For protection, the gulls roost at night on fresh water, away from predators, sometimes forming roosts in late winter of as many as 7,000 birds on the open waters of major reservoirs, such as Quabbin Reservoir. [...] The vast majority are ring-billed gulls, although there are also herring and black-backed gulls roosting.
This fall, state workers will be posting signs and talking to the public in places where gulls congregate to convince people not to feed them in order to protect water supplies.
“Please help keep our drinking water clean,” implores one sample sign designed for Walmart parking lots.
The Department of Conservation and Recreation began a concerted effort to study the gulls’ habits in 2008, through a tagging and tracking program.
“The existing gull harassment program has worked well, but we can do more and do it more effectively,” wrote Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Richard K. Sullivan Jr. in a November 2008 press release announcing the program. “Keeping the gulls away from the reservoirs will help the MWRA maintain the Quabbin and Wachusett as some of the highest-quality water sources in the nation.”
As of Nov. 21, 2008, the agency had tagged over 200 ring-billed, herring, and great black-back gulls, and a May 2009 progress report on the project [pdf] put the number of gulls trapped between January 2008 and March 2009 at 483. Trapped gulls were fitted with an aluminum federal band on one leg and a colored, uniquely numbered band on the opposite leg. Most of the trapped birds also received uniquely numbered wing tags. Color coding of the wing tags showed whether the gull was trapped near the Wachusett or Quabbin Reservoirs.
A handful of gulls were fitted with satellite transmitters.
By April 2009, the agency had recorded 806 sightings of wing-tagged or leg-banded gulls, with many reports coming in from the public. While the majority of the reports came from Massachusetts, sightings were reported in an additional 18 states and Canadian provinces.
An update on the research published in the spring 2011 issue [pdf] of the agency’s Downstream newsletter reported over 3,200 sightings, with over 2,100 in Massachusetts.
“The next time you consider tossing a few crumbs out to the begging gull next to your car, please stop and consider where these gulls are going each night and the impact they can have on water supply reservoirs,” a passage in the newsletter reads. “Gulls are highly resourceful, very mobile, and extremely adaptable. They will survive just fine without the french fries, crackers, or bread that people provide.”
But the habit may be hard to break — for humans as well as gulls.
During a recent stop at the Route 5 plaza, a man in a car spotted me photographing the birds.
“This is a great place to watch them,” he said, pausing to pitch a handful of Taco Bell leftovers out his window. “They’re always here.”
If you spot a tagged or banded gull, report your sighting to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (508) 792-7423, ext. 215. Include the date and time of the sighting, the color of the wingtag, and — if possible — the alpha-numeric combination.
Find more information about the project at: www.mass.gov/dcr/gullstudy