Why do inland cities like St. Paul have so many seagulls?
Bob Azar noticed something that always seemed strange to him when he was a student at the University of St. Thomas. Whenever he was at Cub Foods or out on a Target run, there would be dozens of seagulls in the parking lot.
He knew the birds were in Minnesota and had often seen them on the shores of Lake Superior during family trips to Duluth as a kid.
But in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul — more than a thousand miles from any sea, more than a hundred miles from a Great Lake and a few miles from the Mississippi River — it seemed odd.
Azar turned to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project fueled by questions from readers, to ask: What are seagulls doing so far inland? And why a Cub Foods parking lot?
The answer to the first question is simple: Those aren't really seagulls.
We may know them as seagulls and call them seagulls, but, in fact, they are just gulls. And most gull species, including those in Minnesota, are not tied to any ocean, sea, lake or other body of water, said Steve Kolbe, avian ecologist for the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth.
However, they certainly prefer water, Kolbe added. In Duluth, they'll flock at night to sleep in the safety of the great lake, where they can see danger coming from miles in any direction. But when there is no lake around, the birds make do with whatever they can find, he said, and they have been thriving inland across North America for ages.
The answer to the second question, why they seem to love the Cub Foods in Midway, is a bit trickier.
A vast grocery store parking lot might seem pretty comforting to a creature that is constantly on the lookout for the next fox or raccoon. More than likely, though, the main reason these open water-loving birds thrive on asphalt, in landfills and in just about any urban environment is, well, their stomachs.
Gulls have extremely adaptable diets — more so than most other birds — and they are clever enough to watch humans and what we eat as closely as the family dog, Kolbe said.
"Just like a dog, they will cue in on our routines," Kolbe said.
Whether we're piloting commercial fishing boats on Superior — with all the bait, throwbacks and entrails that follow — or emptying garbage trucks into landfills, or tossing out expired produce, half-eaten sandwiches or other food, the gulls are watching and remembering. True opportunists, they can survive on just about anything.
They'll eat fish alive or dead. They're quick enough to catch insects on the wing. When it rains, they'll scour the ground for worms. When everything else is frozen, they'll pick berries. And to a gull, none of these make for a better meal than a stale French fry or quick dumpster dive in a Cub Foods parking lot, Kolbe said.
Gulls simply find the food, sea or no sea.
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