Utah is the 30th most populous state in the US, and the 13th largest state by area. Utah has a vast array of different habitats suitable for birds and animals, from sand dunes to pine forests in mountain valleys. The state animal for Utah is the Rocky Mountain Elk, but what is the state bird?
The beehive state of Utah chose the California seagull (Larus californicus) as the state bird in 1955. The snowy white bird with gray wings and black tale produces a regal show whether at the lake or in a grassy yard or park. The bird’s feathered Sunday suit give it a well-dressed, sophisticated look.
The state bird of Utah, the California Gull
In 1848, the humble California gull saved the residents of the state. That year, a plague of Rocky Mountain crickets invaded the state. The crickets began eating all the Utah farmer’s crops, destroying the local food source in a time when shipping food occurred by rail car or horseback. The gull came to the state’s rescue by swooping in and dining on the crickets. They ate the pests, saving the remaining crops, and the state’s food sources. Although appreciative, it took Utah a little while to say thank you.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1955, Gov. J. Bracken Lee signed into law House Bill 51 to make it Utah Code 63-13-9. Talk about sending a sweet Valentine.
California Gull hovering above Tufa rock
The California gull looks much like Herring Gull or Ring-billed Gull, and its size falls between the two. The bird’s chest and upper area appear white, but their wings grow in light grey. Typically, these birds have a yellow bill with a black tip.
From head to tail, the California gull measures 18 to 22 inches. Its wingspan ranges from 48 to 51.2 inches. These large birds weigh more than most birds – 15.2 to 36.9 ounces.
Made for flight, the nimble California gull forages on the ocean and lake shores as well as inland. Known for their strength, they dive the water and capture prey in flight. Not one to turn down a street fight, this gull will forage or fray on foot.
These gulls breed on islands with little human presence and little vegetation. They favor levees, inland lakes, and rivers. They don’t forage like most birds do. Rather than pecking the ground these avians look in garbage dumps and parking lots as frequently as they do scrub lots and pastures. They forage orchards and farms, too, which is how they managed to save an entire state from starvation in the 1800s. The subspecies that breeds in the Great Basin of the western US grows smaller and darker than those that breed in the Great Plains.
When they breed, it is a complex affair. They first solicit attention from potential mates. They then court their favored mate by feeding them. They also practice choking, a practice of swelling the neck and holding it in an S shape with their breast pointed to the ground. The male uses head tosses and neck stretches to display his manliness. He also tweets using mating calls.
Once the gulls couple, they produce a brood together. They only procreate for one brood per season. The typical brood includes two to three eggs. Eggs appear gray or dark brown on the outside.
The eggs take 23 to 27 days to incubate. Once they hatch, the parents have another 45 days until they reach fledgling stage.
California Gull in flight
California gulls nest in colonies, occasionally with other birds. They build shallow nests in ground depressions using sticks, trash, dry weeds, and feathers. They range from Canada to the interior states of the US.
These long-lived birds live full and rich lives of up to 24 years and 11 months. That’s the oldest known gull according to USGS banding data.
A flock of California Gulls
California gulls love seafood. That’s probably not a surprise considering where they hail from, but these gulls actually fish. On Utah’s lakes they do the same thing they would on the Pacific coast – they dive bomb the waterway.
These gulls eat whole fish and dine on an array of seafood when they fly to CA. On the lakeshores of Utah, they will eat dead animals washed onto shore. They also eat berries, grain, and insects. Earthworms and snails also factor into their diet. When on the coast, these birds love eating crabs.
When necessary, they will also eat small mammals, reptiles, and dung. As a survival forager with a multi-decade life span, these birds will eat anything that’s not too big to fit in their mouths. You don’t get to the ripe old age of nearly 25 years as a bird without some serious survival skills.
A juvenile California Gull
While no one has tested their IQ in a literal sense, these birds’ behavior reveals their intellect. Humans commonly think of themselves as the only animals who make tools, but the seagull also developed such skills.
Rather than forming tools though, they devised ways to use items in nature as is as tools. For example, gulls will capture a mollusk in its bill, then fly over sharp rocks, dropping the mollusk onto the rocks. This causes their hard shell to break open. They swoop down and eat the sea creature inside.
They also learned to mime. The gull learned to imitate the sound and feeling of falling rain by stamping their feet on the ground. This tricks earthworms into thinking they feel rain falling. They come up to the surface for the moisture, then the gull eats them.
Gulls can teach their young. Gulls remember all of this information and inherently know that their young aren’t born with the knowledge. They teach them the mollusks trick and the stomping ground trick, among others.
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