Gull behavior explained: Choking

After posting a video a few days ago showing a pair of European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) displaying the choking behavior, Phil commented:

What are the Herring Gulls doing at 1:15 (and onwards)? Is that some sort of regurgitating motion? I’ve never seen that before in gulls – though I know that parrots will do something similar when pairing up.

Good question, Phil. I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for some time but felt I didn’t have enough examples to show, but now is as good a time as any I guess.

Here’s the video once more:

The behavior displayed at 1:15 (and also at 0:22) is called “choking” and very much resembles a regurgitating motion.

In this display, the gull squats and bends forward with the bill pointed down while the head makes rapid downward movements without touching the ground. As can be seen in the video as well, the tongue bone is lowered, creating a “bulge” in the throat.

During this display, a muffled rhythmical sound is given.

Un-edited recording of a pair of adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls choking, with background noise (camera, car, cyclist). Leiden, The Netherlands, August 2012.

Here’s another video that I found in my archives showing the same display in Lesser Black-backed Gulls (Larus fuscus). It was taken in one of the large gull colonies near the port of Rotterdam in The Netherlands in April 2012:

Here is another one taken in the same colony in May 2012:

And one more of a pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls:

Read the story behind this scene here.

What is this display for?

Niko Tinbergen in his book The Animal in its World (1972) writes that it is a ritualized display, originating from either depositing nesting material,  regurgitation or both.

To my understanding, choking can be displayed in the following contexts:

  1. As a pair-bonding ritual, as shown in the videos  #1, #2 and #4 above.
  2. In the colony to indicate a possible nesting site to the partner. I have not yet witnessed this myself (although the behavior in video #3 seems close), but a good example can be seen in the excellent DVD Signals for Survival (Marc Dantzker and David O. Brown, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Shoals Marine Laboratory, April 1, 2009) which I can highly recommend. I’m hoping to be able to capture this display on video myself in the upcoming breeding season.
  3. As hostile behavior towards other pairs within or near the nest or colony (boundary disputes). I have witnessed this twice, although in one instance just two gulls were involved. See the photos below.
Two adult Herring Gulls displaying aggressive behavior including mew-calling and choking. A little later, the aggressiveness turned into a brief fight. The photos were taken in a city center where gulls commonly breed on flat roofs. Leiden, The Netherlands, August 2012.

Two adult Herring Gulls displaying aggressive behavior including mew-calling and choking. A little later, the aggressiveness turned into a brief fight. The photo was taken in a city center where gulls commonly breed on flat roofs. Leiden, The Netherlands, August 2012.

A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls choking, aimed at another pair (not in frame). This scene took place just yards from a large gull colony near the port of Rotterdam. April 2011.

A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls choking, aimed at another pair (not in frame). This scene took place just yards from a large gull colony near the port of Rotterdam. April 2011.

How common is this type of behavior in gulls?

This type of behavior is common in all if not most species of gulls, including Kittiwakes. It seems to be often accompanied by mew-calling, especially when the context is pair-bonding.

Here are some references that I found on the internet:

A couple of black-tailed gulls choking as a courtship behavior (video)

Western Gull (audio)

More examples

For me, choking is one of my favorite of gull displays. I couldn’t really believe that this type of behavior occurred in gulls when I first saw it because it looks so out of place.

It is difficult to capture this behavior in photos, but here are some more examples anyway. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do:

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow H.501 choking. Leiden, The Netherlands, 21 August 2012.

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gull Yellow H.501 choking. Leiden, The Netherlands, 21 August 2012.

European Herring Gulls choking. Den Helder, The Netherlands, July 2011.

European Herring Gulls choking. Den Helder, The Netherlands, July 2011.

A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls choking with other Lesser Black-backed Gulls and European Herring Gull nearby. Europoort, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, April 2011.

A pair of Lesser Black-backed Gulls choking with other Lesser Black-backed Gulls and European Herring Gull nearby. Europoort, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, April 2011.

A pair of European Herring Gulls choking in the gull colony. Europoort, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, March 2012.

A pair of European Herring Gulls choking in the gull colony. Europoort, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, March 2012.

Female European Herring Gull choking next to male partner. Gull colony on the isle of Texel, The Netherlands, May 2011.

Femaile European Herring Gull choking next to male partner. Gull colony on the isle of Texel, The Netherlands, May 2011.

References:

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

The Animal in Its World – Niko Tinbergen, third printing 1975

The Herring Gull’s World – Niko Tinbergen (1960)

The Evolution of Behavior in Gulls – Niko Tinbergen (1960)

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13 thoughts on “Gull behavior explained: Choking

  1. Thanks for the explanation. I’ve been interested in gulls for a long time, but I’ve never seen them ‘choking’ at all. Probably because most of my interaction with gulls has been from watching and feeding (sometimes – I’m not one of those guys who goes every day with 10 loaves of bread!) urban birds and with one of those ‘window tapping’ gulls in particular. Sometimes I’ll go to a bird reserve a few miles away to see the Black-headed Gulls (and usually one pair of GBBGs right in the middle of the colony, which they stay as far away from as possible!) at breeding time.

    Are you ever going to write a post on the window-tappers, as a matter of interest? I find that behaviour really interesting. There are loads of YouTube videos showing them doing it, so it seems to be quite a common thing.

    • Hi Phil, good to hear that you found the explanation useful.

      I’ve seen those videos on YouTube of the window-tapping gulls. Very intriguing behavior. I’m sure it will be subject of one of my posts some day 😉

      • I know that some people say that the gulls are just interacting with their own reflections in the glass, but that wouldn’t explain why some birds apparently come to the same windows every day, would it?

        Though knowing what gulls are like, every person’s favourite ‘gull friend’ probably has about 7-9 different houses that it visits and tries tapping the windows of until it gets a response on a daily basis… 🙂

  2. I’m not convinced that the tapping is a result of the gull seeing its own reflection and trying to interact with it, that is just not how gulls communicate with each other. It’s an interesting subject to find out more about.

    • I’m convinced that urbanized gulls change their behaviours around humans. Have you ever seen a fully-grown gull begging like a fledgling (with the ‘hunched, fluffy and head-flicking’ thing) in front of a person who’s holding some food?

      In fact, pretty much like it was begging food from its mother. They even make a noise that sounds something like the famous babyish ‘peep’ – but with an adult voice.

      • I completely agree about urbanized gulls adapting their behavior and learning different ways of obtaining food. It’s this versatility that I find so fascinating in gulls.

        The example you give about adult individuals assuming the forward posture and showing begging behavior similar to juveniles I have never seen myself in the context of them being fed. Are you referring to the larger species (Herring, Lesser Black-backed)? If so, I would be very interested in photos or videos…

  3. I had a look on YouTube and this was the best video that I could immediately find when searching for ‘gull begging’ or ‘seagull begging’.

    There are other vids on there where gulls swarm around people’s feet doing the same thing, because I’ve watched them – but ‘gull begging’ is not the subject of the video, as such. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually the larger species.

      • I *think* that I may have seen Herring Gulls doing that when I’ve fed them before. Not ever directed at me – but towards each other when one of them is trying to fend the others away from a pile of bread (or whatever they’re eating). If you went out to wherever it is that your local urban flock hang out with a bag of kitchen scraps, you could probably see them doing it for yourself. I don’t recall it being particularly unusual behaviour. Just part of the usual bickering and squabbling.

        Though I’m not claiming my memory to be perfect here. It’s been a while – and it’s possible that I’m confusing them with another species of gull… 🙂

  4. Hello, I just stumbled across this article when trying to find a reason for the behaviour of two seagulls I was just watching. One was pulling at the wing feather of the other, and the other didn’t seem to mind. At one point the one with the feather being pulled went out of view, down onto the roof. The other followed it, and it appeared as though they were still doing this. Then another gull landed above them and appeared to be “crowing” (do not know the proper terminology).
    Any ideas as to what was going on? Thanks.

    • Hi Mary,
      Sounds like some kind of dispute between two males or two females. Wing-pulling is quite common and often the recipient just has to wait for the attacker to let go, hence the stoic look sometimes. The third gull could be one of the partners.
      Hope this helps.
      Regards, Maarten

  5. Hi Maarten, I just found your fantastic blog while searching for choking behaviour. I witnessed it last week for the first time on LBB gulls and today on a pair of Herring gulls that appeared to be checking a chimney as a possible nesting site. It is fascinating, it reminds me of cooing pigeons. I took a video of the LBB gulls but it was so windy I can’t hear the gull sounds. I also saw a LBBgull sitting just by a Herring gull of a pair and the H gull eventually sitting next to it. Most strange, given than both seemed paired with the ‘right’ sp (you can see it here: https://flic.kr/p/rVWnsf). I was so fascinated by their behaviour that started reading The Herring Gulls world, by Tinbergen, and that is providing some answers (and amusement, he had a great sense of humour). Pity the photos are such poor quality. Count me as a follower now!

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