- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant; regular in the winter and especially common along Lake Superior. The Herring Gull was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Herring Gull has a circumpolar distribution; its’ North American breeding distribution extends from Alaska, southeast across Canada, to the Great Lakes and north Atlantic coast. In southern Canada and the northeastern United States, breeding densities are highest along the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland south to the Delmarva Peninsula, with local concentrations at several inland sites, including the Great Lakes (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 11/20 by Partners in Flight and designated a species of Low Concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan.
A short- to medium-distance migrant that winters along coastal waters throughout North America and Mexico. Birds also winter in the southeastern United States and the Caribbean Islands.
Gleans food from the ground, from aerial plunge dives, and from surface dipping while swimming. An omnivore that feeds on a wide variety of animals, including aquatic invertebrates, fish, insects, young birds, and eggs. Also scavenges on garbage, carrion, and refuse from fishing and other vessels.
A shallow cup nest usually placed on the ground but occasionally found on cliff ledges; frequently nests in large colonies, often with other colonial nesting species, but may be found as isolated pairs or in very small colonies numbering less than 10 pairs.
Northern Minnesota is on the southern periphery of the Herring Gull’s breeding range. The gull is a common resident on the rocky islands that dot the inland waters of Lake of the Woods and border the North Shore of Lake Superior. Nearly 100 years ago, Roberts (1932) described it as a common spring and fall migrant throughout the state but largely restricted to those two large water bodies during the breeding season. The birds were also common during the winter months on Lake Superior when the lake did not freeze. At the time, a small number of nesting records were available from islands in Lake of the Woods (Gull Rock, Big Oak, and Four Block, each in 1915) and from two localities along the North Shore. The latter included an island near Two Harbors, which most likely was Knife Island (1923), and Two Islands in Taconite Harbor in Cook County, which today is known as Bear Island and Gull Island (1905; J. Green, pers. comm.).
In the years that followed, the nesting colony on Knife Island was regularly censused by the Duluth Bird Club, who published reports on their field visits from 1941 through 1952. When Roberts (1932) first identified the site as a nesting colony in 1924, only 25 nests were found. During the time that the Duluth Bird Club visited the colony, it grew from 73 nests in 1941 (Jones 1942) to 312 nests in 1950 (Hofslund 1950). The last report, in 1952, reported only 150 nests.
Elsewhere, in 1945, nearly 150 nests were found on an island just north of Beaver Bay along the North Shore by Olga Lakela and Evelyn Jones (Jones 1945). In 1966, Herring Gulls were reported nesting on Lake Mille Lacs (Huber 1966). Unfortunately, just a few years later, in 1970, only 1 nest was found on the lake’s Spirit Island, while none were reported on Hennepin Island (Ivanovs 1971).
In the 1970s, the arrival of Ring-billed Gulls to the Duluth-Superior Harbor led to increased efforts to survey and census the harbor’s gull and tern populations. The first reported nesting of Herring Gulls in the harbor was in 1973, when a single nest was found within the first major nesting colony of Ring-billed Gulls at the 27th Avenue West taconite dock area. Although the entire colony failed (Harris and Matteson 1975), Herring Gulls have continued to nest in the harbor in small numbers (usually less than 50 pairs) and always in association with Ring-billed Gulls (Davis and Niemi 1980; Bracey, pers. comm.).
In 1975, Green and Janssen provided a more thorough account of the species’ statewide distribution, writing that it was found nesting along the rocky islands that bordered the North Shore of Lake Superior, along the border lakes from Lake of the Woods east through Cook County, on Lake Vermilion, and occasionally on Lake Mille Lacs. Although the large border lakes and Lake Vermilion often supported colonies numbering 100 or more pairs, smaller lakes usually supported only isolated pairs or small colonies.
Overall, the largest colonies occurred along the North Shore. Indeed, this was confirmed several years later when Goodermote (1980, 1984, 1989) conducted a series of surveys along the shore, from Knife Island north to the Canadian border. Between 1978 and 1979 he inventoried 84 sites; 37 supported major rookeries, which accounted for 97% of the Herring Gull nesting population along the lakeshore. The average number of nests during the two years was 6,334. The estimate rose to 7,748 in 1984 and 9,037 in 1989 (Goodermote 1984, 1989). The largest populations were located on the Suzie Islands in Cook County, Taconite Harbor in Cook County, Silver Bay in Lake County, and on Knife and Encampment Islands in Lake County.
Farther west, Hirsch (1981) documented 332 nesting pairs on six different islands in the Minnesota portion of Lake of the Woods, and Mortensen and Ringle (2007) documented the history of Herring Gulls nesting on Leech Lake beginning in 1983. Although the birds have consistently been present on Leech Lake’s Gull Island every year but one, the nesting population has always been small, usually numbering 5 to 20 pairs.
Throughout the summer months, nonbreeding adults and immatures may be seen near large lakes across the state, but nesting populations remain confined to northeastern and north-central Minnesota. Janssen (1987) documented 7 northern counties where nesting had been confirmed since 1970: Cass, Cook, Koochiching, Lake, Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs, and St. Louis. This number remained unchanged when Hertzel and Janssen (1998) provided an updated list of county nesting records several years later. Field staff with the Minnesota Biological Survey have identified 66 breeding season locations confined largely to the Arrowhead region with a few scattered records in Itasca and Beltrami Counties (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017).
During the MNBBA, observers reported 346 Herring Gull records in 4.5% (212/4,741) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 4.3% (101/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was confirmed in 31 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were reported in 23 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were confirmed nesting in 7 counties. Although the gulls were not reported in Koochiching County during the MNBBA, as documented by Hertzel and Janssen (1998), they were reported nesting in 1 new county. Young were observed in a nest on Pelican Lake in Crow Wing County in 2010.
The Herring Gull is an adaptable species. There were at least 2 reports of gulls nesting on building rooftops in the city of Duluth: 1 pair nesting atop buildings in the Miller Mall shopping area in the summers of 2009 and 2010; and several pairs nesting atop the Essentia Building in downtown Duluth in 2012, where they continued to nest in 2013 and 2014 (Green, pers. comm.).
Nevertheless, the core of the species’ breeding range in Minnesota remains the North Shore of Lake Superior and the northern lakes from Lake of the Woods east throughout northern St. Louis, Lake, and Cook Counties, similar to that described by Roberts 100 years ago. Elsewhere within the Herring Gull’s breeding range, the only notable change has been the southern extension of their breeding range along the Atlantic coast. Originally limited to Maine and Nova Scotia, they expanded south to the Carolinas between 1910 and the 1960s. Occasional nesting has also been reported in southern Louisiana (Nisbet et al. 2017).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.