Jackson County

Yes, seagulls eat Cheetos from humans. But what's on the menu when it's not beach season?

What do seagulls do for food on the off-season? These are the winter months, when there are few beachgoers to throw food in the air.

“They have to fend for themselves,” says Pascagoula River Audubon Center Director Mark LaSalle.

So what do gulls really eat, and where do they get it?

They are scavengers, LaSalle said. They will flock not only to populated beaches and parking lots on the Coast, where food might be dropped or thrown, but they also flock to landfills, where there’s plenty to scavenge.

Gulls are permanent residents of landfills, especially in coastal areas.

They are a breed of bird that has adapted well to living with man.

“They have benefited from man,” he said. “They’ll eat anything.”

But interesting enough, during breeding season, they don’t eat junk.

“We see them in an artificial situation,” LaSalle says. “On the (Mississippi) Coast on the beaches with people is an artificial situation.”

They don’t even breed here.

Eating healthy for the babies

They go south to breed on Breton Islands in the sound off the coast of Louisiana. That’s also where brown pelicans go to breed. It is a National Wildlife Refuge.

“When they’re down there, I guarantee there’s not anyone with a bag of Cheetos feeding them,” he said. “They are feeding themselves, and they’re feeding their babies.”

They eat small fish or fry that they catch or steal from pelicans. They will eat other shore bird eggs and even baby Least terns. They will even hunt in groups, working together to get food away from other animals.

What they eat and feed their young during breeding season — in the spring — is much more nutritious than their typical diet scavenging Coast beaches.

“They fish,” he said. “We just don’t usually see it.”

Their fishing is not the deep dive of a pelican or an osprey, it’s closer to the surface, described as a dipping action. They can stir up invertebrates and other small marine life paddling with their feet and feed that way also.

They skim things off the surface of the water, LaSalle said.

He said there have been studies that indicate the gull population on landfills subsides during breeding season. They don’t want to feed their young trash.

“It’s like cardinals at the bird feeder,” he said. “They eat seed from a feeder, but when they have young, they don’t feed them seed. They go catch caterpillars and spiders and soft-bodied animals that are more nutritious than seeds.”

‘There are no seagulls’

What we see on the Coast in the summer is mostly Laughing gulls.

But during the winter, other gulls arrive. The Bonaparte’s gull, which breeds in the arctic, winters on Coast beaches. The Ring-billed gull comes in from Canada. Occasionally a Glaucous gull, another arctic gull, will winter here.

“Winter is big shore bird season for us here,” LaSalle said. “Birders come from all over, because they can see birds here that they’d have to go to the arctic to see otherwise.”

You just have to know what you’re looking for.

Some of the visiting gulls are smaller than the Laughing gull and others are taller, and their coloration is different.

“And with all good deference to ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull,’ (a popular fable in the 1970s) there are no seagulls,” LaSalle said.

“When you look them up, they’re gulls,” he said. “You don’t look up seagulls. It’s a Laughing gull, there are no Laughing seagulls.”

What gulls really eat

Most of the gulls, especially the larger ones, are omnivorous, eating small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, according to “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior.”

They eat dead things that wash up on the shore, and also dung, grain and berries, the bird guide says. They will harass other birds that have found food.

The Audubon field guide includes crabs, insects, earthworms, snails, the eggs of horseshoe crabs and the young of other birds.

“Gulls feast on garbage throughout the year,” Sibley says, “in the non-breeding season.”

And while gulls eat well before laying their eggs and feed their babies well during hatching and rearing, after fledging, a young gull will take after its parents and the “consumption of garbage increases substantially.”