Seagulls Make Pit Stop in Wheeling

WHEELING — Local shopping centers, such as The Highlands, became rest areas recently for seagulls making their way back home.

Jim Fregonara, a wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Division of Highways, said when migrating, the birds turn locations such as parking lots and football fields into rest stops. They prefer areas with low-lying or no grass. Because of their short legs and webbed feet, it is easier for them to walk on pavement.

”You’ll never find them in a field. They like to see their predators. They don’t have a body built for tall grass,” he said.

He noted gulls making stops in the region likely were migrating back to the Great Lakes. The birds prefer open spaces with water, such as the ocean or lakes with beaches. However, while migrating they must settle for less to get rest, which translates into parking lots with water puddles and fascinated shoppers willing to dole out popcorn or other snacks to help get a closer look.

By nature, seagulls are scavengers — but people should not feed them, Fregonara said.

”They can hunt a little for fish, but they have to be close to the surface. They can’t dive deep. They eat a lot of dead things washed up on the beach,” he said.

While there are many different types of seagulls, people in the local region typically encounter ringbilled seagulls and herring gulls, Fregonara said. As its name suggests, the ringbilled seagull has a black ring around a portion of its beak; the herring gull does not.

This week at The Highlands, shoppers at Target watched as ringbilled seagulls took advantage of people throwing bits of food from their cars. A solitary crow hung with the crowd of gulls, many members of which screeched while patrolling the lot for scraps. Fregonara said their calls were telling others of the grub.

”They take handouts from everybody,” he said.

Fregonara noted the distance south the gulls may travel depends on the weather. Each year, 300 different species of birds visit West Virginia during migrations.