As I was walking along the beach last weekend I was reminded of a different beach trip with my uncle. We were all eating lunch, he stood up to get a drink, and a gull grabbed his sandwich right out of his hand. I had never seen him look more shocked. That got me thinking about what makes gulls do this and what other birds are prone to this kind of behavior. I found that certain birds exhibit a behavior called kleptoparasitism. As you might be able to guess from the name, this is basically a behavior in which an animal steals food that has already been caught by another animal. Many shorebirds aren’t too shy to take food away from humans either.
So just what animals exhibit kleptoparasitism? This behavior is seen in several different types of animals, from insect species like cuckoo bees and Amazon ants to dewdrop spiders and even a genus of jumping spiders. Hyenas and lions exhibit this behavior as well. It is also found in many different groups of birds (skuas, jaegers, frigatebirds, raptors, gulls, terns, and coots are among the most kleptoparasitic groups).
The bird to look out for during your beach lunch on the Gulf is the Laughing Gull. If you live in the area, you have probably seen and heard these birds. This distinctive gull has a gray back and wings and a white underside. During the breeding season it has a black cap with small white crescents around its eyes. You can very easily identify this bird by its hysterical laughing-like call.
Gulls in general will eat just about anything they can find. They’ll gather at dumps to eat scraps and even follow tractors to catch insects they disturb. And of course, they’ll snatch the food right from under your nose.
We’re not the only ones who fall victim to the klepto tendencies of the Laughing Gull. While the Brown Pelican is draining water from its bill after a dive, gulls will steal the fish right out of its pouch. Sometimes they’ll do this while perching on the pelican’s head. Talk about a bad day!
Kleptoparasitism is the perfect balance between brawn and brain. Stealing food not only requires athleticism and agility, but also requires careful planning and decision making. Next time a gull steals your sandwich, you might want to stop and think about how you were outsmarted by a bird