Global Cooling Sends Gulls South

Published April 1, 2009

Bird enthusiasts are reporting ivory gulls, which usually make their home in the high Arctic, are being seen for the first time in decades in the United States.

Separate sightings of ivory gulls this January in Gloucester and Plymouth, Massachusetts are luring bird watchers from as far away as Florida, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

First Time Since 1800s

With global temperatures declining for most of the past decade, birds and other species are extending their ranges farther south than has been seen in decades. According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the ivory gull sightings this year mark the first time in more than two decades the Arctic bird has been seen in Massachusetts.

The Plymouth gull has remained in one location, helpful for bird watchers making the trip. This marks the first time fully mature gulls have been seen in Massachusetts since the 1800s.

“The ivory gull is about as northern a bird as you can imagine,” said Wayne Petersen, director of the Audubon Society’s Massachusetts Important Bird Areas Program, according to the January 21 Boston Globe. “They really are associated with pack ice and Arctic oceans.”

Only 16 inches tall, ivory gulls are pure white with miniature black beaks and lilac-lined mouths. The Arctic bird, which is on the Canadian endangered species list, follows whales and feeds off small plankton, fish, and seal feces.

Coincidental Sightings?

Some bird experts are being cautious about directly linking the unusual southerly sightings to global cooling.

“The situation with the gulls in Massachusetts is probably a coincidence, or there’s something that brought them down, a storm or something else. They’re exceedingly rare gulls, and the population is very small and declining,” said Rhode Island bird expert Rachel Farrell.

“I don’t think anyone knows what brought down these two ivory gulls. Coincidentally, there was one in Rhode Island last winter, but it was a juvenile. These are two adults. We don’t know what’s going on with the population yet. We’re just gathering evidence,” Farrell added.

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.