The gulls are back in town.
A widening cloud of white droppings staining the top of the new Looff Carrousel building may be the most obvious clue of the urban bird’s return to downtown Spokane. But the gulls – a variety known as the “ring-billed” and not the colloquial but nonexistent “seagull,” as any birder worth his salt will tell you – have been living in the park and downtown for decades.
“They are most common sometime in March until usually October, but they can be around in any numbers most of the year,” said Jon Isacoff, a longtime local bird watcher and professor of political science and environmental studies at Gonzaga University.
Look skyward in the morning and evening along a stretch of Interstate 90 west of town and you might see those gulls coming and going, part of a likely commute between the urban center and Sprague Lake. There, on a patch of earth known as Harper Island, hundreds of pairs of ring-billed gulls nest in colonies that they’ll leave to find food during the daylight hours, and also to draw away the attention of any predators.
Riverfront Park staff have noticed an anecdotal uptick in gull visits this spring, said Fianna Dickson, city parks spokeswoman.
“We don’t know why,” she said. “We’d probably have to do an assessment to know for sure.”
But there have been no complaints lodged with the city’s 311 customer service line over the past two years, she said, and the droppings will be power-washed off the metal surface of the carrousel building’s dome later this spring. The roof wasn’t cleaned last year spring because crews were correcting a sealant error that had caused the dome to prematurely erode, Dickson said.
The gull’s reasons for roosting on top of the dome could be plenty, said Kim Thorburn, a board member of the Washington Ornithological Society and Washington Fish and Wildlife commissioner. A definitive answer likely would require more scrutiny of the gulls’ daytime behavior and migratory habits, but the simplest answers could be that the metal is warm on top of the dome and gives the birds a view of potential predators. The building may also attract certain kinds of insects that the gulls would want to eat in the spring months, as they gather energy for the nesting season, Thorburn suggested.
“They’re in a high-energy-need period right now, because of reproduction,” Thorburn said. “For a hen to put an egg out is a lot of energy.”
Gulls are notorious for their nondiscerning palette, and in larger cities with beaches – such as Chicago – the eating and digestive process of the birds is cause for concern. The Windy City has ring-billed gulls, which weigh about a pound and are identifiable by the black ring around their beaks. But Chicago also is home to the herring gull, which can weigh twice as much and, as a result, tend to be more aggressive, posing a bigger problem for both other birds and beachgoers alike.
“We’re kind of lucky because the ring-billed gulls are smaller, and on the less aggressive side,” Isacoff said. Also, the birds that nest in Sprague Lake tend to spread out across the region. If all of them came for an afternoon at Riverfront Park, Isacoff said, “it would be a disaster.”
Observations of the bird’s activity in the park have been light through the years, according to a scan of The Spokesman-Review’s archives. During the award ceremony for Bloomsday 1994, a well-placed dart of gull droppings struck ninth-place women’s open finisher Lisa Harvey as she collected her $700 in prize money, according to an account in the newspaper.
Letter writer Blaine Holland in The Spokesman-Review’s opinion pages in May 2003 called for controls of the birds, noting the steps outside the old Carrousel building had become coated in droppings.
“Not only could I not sit on the steps, but I could not help but worry about droppings falling on my head as the treasured seagulls were swarming in masses above,” Holland wrote.
There’s a simple solution if parkgoers are concerned about a white patina of poo at the park, Isacoff said: Stop feeding the birds.
“The more food, the more birds, the more poop,” Isacoff said. Feeding any wildlife in Spokane parks is forbidden by city code, subject to a $31 fine.
When they’re at ease, gulls will go wherever they’re eating, Thorburn said. Their defecation becomes more discerning in the months when they’re setting on eggs and trying to avoid attracting predators, she said, and they’ll leave droppings once a day in a secluded area away from their nests.
Hal McGlathery, who served as the park’s director from 1982 to 1996, said he didn’t remember the gulls being a source of concern for parkgoers during his tenure. But he does remember the summer of the rats. In 1991, public health concerns prompted the placement of traps during the winter months, and the following year there was a concern about marmots.
“It was just one summer, and it was a pain,” McGlathery said of the rats.
In recent years, parks and wildlife officials have faced concerns about beaver damage to trees.
Dickson said park officials have been in contact with the Department of Fish and Wildlife about potential deterrent measures, including owl statues, that may stop the birds from congregating. Those measures are usually effective for a little while with gulls, Thorburn said, but if food is plentiful in an area, the birds will come back.
While they’re abundant across the country and have a somewhat diminished reputation because of their behavior, flocks of gulls are of great interest to birdwatchers, Thorburn noted, and play an important part in a local ecosystem.
“It’s not unusual to have vagrants show up, some that aren’t even North American breeders,” she said.
“Birders really like to look at flocks of gulls, just in case they can see an unusual species.”
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