One fall some years ago I stood on the Grand Marais harbor shore behind the Angry Trout Cafe and listened to two friends debate the identity of a gull.
Was it an Iceland gull or a Thayer's gull, clues subtle and eventually irrelevant because those two species and a third, Kumlien's gull, were combined — lumped in birder-speak — into a single species, Iceland.
It was a discussion only a lover of gulls would understand. In that case, please welcome Marianne Taylor, enamored of gulls, author of a new book, "The Gull Next Door." (Princeton University Press, hardcover, 192 pages, illustrated with pen and ink drawings, $24.95.)
There are about 50 species of gulls in the world, an uncertain number because of lumping and splitting, gull identities fluid. North America, according to an American Birding Association checklist, has or has been visited by 28 species. Minnesota counts 18.
Taylor, a resident of Great Britain, grew up with gulls nesting on the roof of her home. She has written what I consider the best book on gulls I have read. (I've read this one twice.)
This is not an identification book, and it's probably unfair to the dozens in that category to lump (sorry) it with hers, which is an edification book.
Taylor tells stories, working basic gull information, including identification, into those stories. She is a good storyteller, her bright personality evident. She gives gulls personality, too, making them much more interesting.
In Minnesota we are most likely to see ring-billed and herring gulls, the former evident in the Twin Cities, the latter more so in Duluth and north along the Lake Superior shore. Both species nest there, the ring-bills we see locally most likely young birds, non-breeders.
The variety of gull species we see can be attributed to Lake Superior, our local wealth of lakes and rivers, and to a large flock of sharp-eyed local birders who don't miss much.
Herring gulls are large birds, white and gray with black trimming, basic gull colors. Ring-bills are similar, but smaller, with an evident black ring near the bill point.
Taylor writes about the behaviors that gulls and crows share. Both are omnivorous, eating just about anything that moves and some things that don't. They hang around, alertly idle. They don't miss much, either.
She mentions bird intelligence studies that show crows are much smarter than gulls, the latter stumped by basic tests. I've watched gulls in Grand Marais, however, that understand trash cans very well, and the profit to be made by ripping open the bag inside.
Gulls also open mussels for a meal by dropping them from high onto a hard surface below. Those smart crows do the same.
Gulls change appearance in the winter, the two we see most often adding faint stripes to head and neck. Taylor points out that gulls can take up to five years to mature, plumage changing each year, an identification snag.
The book offers an excellent overall picture of gulls and gull behavior, species aside. When Taylor does focus on a particular gull, several of the species we see in Minnesota are included, many gulls being possessed with wanderlust.
She wrote the book in March 2020, the pandemic underway. She discusses appearance of the virus in the "wet" meat markets of China where wild animals were slaughtered for sale, many of them threatened species.
She calls into question that practice and our treatment of wild animals in general, asking if COVID-19 could be nature's way of striking back.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com.