The Mew Call

Most people who live in towns and cities in which large gulls are abundant will be familiar with the Mew call: a plaintive call, often heard in disputes.

Listen to a recording of the Mew call (Opens in new window, click ‘Play Recording’ on the right.)

The Mew call is accompanied by a characteristic Arch-posture in which the head is held down and the wings are held slightly away from the body. It is usually performed while walking but can be performed while standing, flying, or swimming as well.

I’m always impressed by this intimidating posture and find this one of the most beautiful types of behavior to observe.

European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus), performing the Mew call with the characteristic Arch-posture. This individual (ringed as Bruxelles L-99798) is particularly dominant towards other gulls and can usually be recognized by its aggressive behavior alone. IJmuiden harbour, The Netherlands, August 14, 2011.

The Mew call is used in both aggressive and non-aggressive situations:

Aggressive

  • In defense of food or territory, aimed at an opponent
  • To attract a mate for support in territory defense

Non-aggressive

  • To attract a partner (also for courtship)
  • To call chicks that have wandered too far from the nest
  • To gather chicks for feeding or after they have been hiding after a disturbance
  • As a nest-relief invitation
  • As a call performed upon landing

This type of behavior is mostly observed in the larger gull species (from Common Gull (Larus canus) and Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)  upwards); it does not seem to appear in the smaller (hooded) gull species.

A European Herring Gull (behind) and a Lesser Black-backed Gull (front) trying to intimidate each other by walking parallel while performing the Mew call. Note how the wings are held slightly away from the body, ready to strike with.  IJmuiden harbour, The Netherlands, September 11, 2011.

A European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argenteus) performs the Mew call as a sign of aggressive behavior while going through the garbage looking for food. Leiden, The Netherlands, 20 July 2011.

A 2nd-calendar year Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) shows aggressive behavior by walking and running up to other gulls in the Arch-posture while performing the Mew cal. Note though that the wings are held against the body, a sign of non-aggression. Texel, The Netherlands, 14 March 2012.

An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii), performing the Mew call while landing in his breeding colony. Note the position of the legs and tail. Texel, 24 June 2011.

A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus graellsii) pair-bonding. Initially both are head-tossing, after which the male walks out of frame. He returns around the 35-second mark while running quickly in the Arch-posture and Mew-calling. The female then joins him and continues head-tossing. Rotterdam, Europoort, 9 April 2012.

References:

European Herring Gull audio – Xeno-canto, bird sounds from around the world

Signals for Survival – (DVD) Marc Dantzker and David O. Brown, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Shoals Marine Laboratory, April 1, 2009

Birds of the Western Palearctic interactive

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