This is going to get confusing, so stay with me, or maybe skip this first paragraph. The Herring Gull that is the subject of my painting is the one found where I live, in an area known as the lower Great Lakes. It was, for most of my life, thought to be the same species as was found across much of the northern hemisphere, with geographic variations, known as subspecies, distinguishable by minor variations in colour, pattern, size and configuration. Those variations were mostly to be found in such features as beak size, shape and colour; iris and eye-ring colour; wing tip pattern; feet colour; and shade of grey on the back and top of the wings (mantel). But there is also something called the Thayer’s Gull. I grew up learning it was a subspecies of the Herring Gull, until 1973, when the experts I relied on decided it was a full species. Ah, but then they changed their minds in 2017, after a lot of guesswork it was renamed as a subspecies of the Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) which has all white wingtips as an adult), with some holding out for it to be a regular Iceland Gull, but a dark form. And then there was the Kumlien’s Gull, which may have been a subspecies of the Thayer’s, or maybe the Iceland, with all capable of breeding with each other and, of course, producing individual variations. Meanwhile, in Europe the Herring Gull of North America is now mostly considered to be a different species, called the American Herring (or Smithsonian) Gull while here in North America it is still thought to be a subspecies of the Herring Gull, which is what I’m calling it, and only subspecifically different from European birds, both distinct from the Vega Gull (Larus vegae) of northeastern Asia, which many European experts think is a subspecies of their European Herring Gull.
I told you it was confusing, and my brief, overly simplistic and probably not entirely correct synopsis does not do justice as to just how confusing the taxonomy and nomenclature of these gulls really is, with the final word on it all yet to be written. There are birders who love to try to sort out the more confusing birds they see, remembering that there are also different plumages, as the birds age. All, in my eyes, are beautiful whatever you call them and I enjoy painting them, more than trying to identify the less obvious ones. Our North American birds breed from Alaska and arctic Canada across the northern part of the continent, to the east coast and south into the northeastern U.S., wintering or migrating throughout most of the continent so there are few places on the continent where you won’t see them at least part of the year.
As with so many species they were greatly threatened by trade in their eggs and plumage during the 19th century, started to recover when protection was legislated early in the 20th, and then, again like so many species, went into decline a second time when DDT was introduced into the environment following WWII. The pesticide created metabolic changes that resulted in eggs with shells too thin to survive. The species greatly increased when DDT was banned, and then leveled off. They are doing well where I live but there have been some declines elsewhere. They are omnivores and scavengers, and benefit from such human activities as open landfills and other food waste, but they will prey upon weaker or smaller animals, including baby birds, eggs, fish, voles and invertebrates.
They nest near water, often on islands, and normally lay three eggs in a simple scrape on the ground, roughly lined with a bit of vegetation, feathers and so on, and rather messy looking, and sometimes in among jumbles of stones or driftwood as I’ve shown in the second, much earlier painting. The newer one is in oils, on a birchwood panel and is 12 X 16 inches. They are colonial nesters.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada