While waiting for smoke signifying the election of a new Pope, many people were interested in a ‘seagull’ standing on the Sistine Chapel’s smoke stack. Quickly dubbed @SistineSeagull on Twitter (one of several accounts), the bird also stimulated conversation among birdwatchers about what species of gull it was. But it wasn’t a SEAgull. In fact there is no bird called seagull, and most gulls don’t live near seas.
Perhaps it’s a fine point to those who aren’t bird watchers, but these birds are called gulls, not seagulls. With its well-timed appearance, the gull on the Sistine Chapel was full of symbolism for many, but also provides an opportunity to consider these birds that often share environments with us.
Many gulls live inland; think of all the gulls around Chicago and other cities. Worldwide, there are 52 known species of gulls. While photos of the Sistine gull haven’t provided very good views of its field marks, its white head suggests Yellow-legged Gull, the most common white-headed gull in Italy. Yellow-legged Gull is a species native to the Mediterranean region, but not found in the United States.
In Illinois, 22 species of gulls have been recorded, many of which are rarities. Only two species breed regularly in the state, Ring-billed Gull—our most common gull species—and Herring Gull. Two other species, Franklin’s Gull and Bonaparte’s Gull, are regular migrants through Illinois.
Tricky for inexperienced birders to identify, gulls are a welcomed challenge for many bird enthusiasts. In fact, Chicago-area bird watchers test their identification skills during the annual Gull Frolic held each February in Illinois’ Lake County, an event sponsored by the Illinois Ornithological Society.
Gulls frequent many inland locations throughout the United States, including landfills, garbage dumps, parking lots, farm fields—anyplace they might find food. In late afternoon, Chicago-area residents can watch gulls flying east toward Lake Michigan, where the birds roost on breakwaters at night.
In accurate terminology, the bird on the Sistine Chapel was a gull, not a seagull. However given the context, one could call it a See gull (as in Holy See). Bad pun. Never mind.