Mar 08 2013
After a week near western gulls in San Diego I got pretty used to seeing individual gulls perched high, watching the others fly by. Inevitably, the lone gull would throw his head back and give the long call when other gulls flew over. What did he mean?
The “long call” is used in many contexts, as a greeting between mates or a statement about territory. In this video two great black-backed gulls give the long call when they fight over a fish. Watch the video and I’ll tell you what I think about their interactions.
Their gestures tell the tale.
- The hungry gull (HG) approaches, bowed low in a threatening gesture.
- The eating gull (EG) sees the threat and opens his wings, “Back off!”
- HG turns away and gives the Long Call: He hunches over, bows his head, then lifts it high leaning his body at an oblique angle and calling loudly. You might think he’s not talking to EG because he’s not looking at him. Far from it! By turning away he’s avoiding direct confrontation. Perhaps he’s trying appeasement.
- That didn’t work. HG walks past EG without looking at him directly. As he approaches EG’s tail he gets an idea.
- Tail pulling didn’t work at all, so the hungry gull bows low (a threat) and walks to the front of EG. Facing him and opening his wings (again, a threat), he tries to steal the fish.
- Finally the eating gull has had enough. The two fight. EG quickly wins. Hungry Gull retreats while EG gives the long call in triumph, and then resumes his meal.
What’s the relative stature of these gulls? My guess is that EG (the eating gull) outranks HG (hungry gull), but HG is willing to test the limits.