Friday, January 25, 2008

Seagull Smarts

I always thought seagulls were dumb, but I may have to revise that.

Remember how they were portrayed in "Finding Nemo?" A herd of birds hypnotically chanting "mine, mine, mine..." as they pursued our favorite clown fish huddled in a pelican's bill.

They don't appear that much smarter in real life. I watch them circling fishing boats, a swirl of snapping beaks, as they jostle each other for scraps from the day's catch.

But yesterday while I was running on a bike path along the water, I watched as a seagull swooped upward before me, its arched wings catching the wind's current as it levitated higher and higher. Then the seagull dropped something on the rocks, and it made a crack. I watched as the seagull descended, landed on the rocks and inspected what it had dropped. Then, I watched it eat.

Then I figured out what had happened.

You probably already know. But if you don't, the seagull was dropping a clam on the rocks to shatter its shell, so it could eat the meat inside. How ingenuous. It makes me wonder how they learned how to do it. Is it hereditary, passed from parent to baby? Is it evolutionary, an adaptation to the environment? Or are there some genius seagulls out there?

As I pondered this, I realized I was making a lot of crunching sounds on the concrete path. I looked down and saw shell fragments all over the place. Clearly, the seagulls were dropping the shells on to the bike path as well as on the rocks. I didn't see any shells in the surrounding grass, so I can only guess that the gulls had figured out they could accomplish the same thing dropping the shells on the path as they could on the rocky shore.

And that made me wonder even more whether genetics or evolution was coming into play here. Did some seagull drop a shell on the path and make the connection that the path would yield the same result as the rocks? Did other seagulls notice and imitate what they had seen? Are the "smarter" seagulls surviving better as a result? Or is it all just happenstance?

I don't know the answer, but it sure makes me wonder.

But I know now that seagulls are smarter than I thought. At least some of them.


Tillerman said...

I've noticed the same thing and wondered along similar lines. But what mystifies me even more is why do the seagulls only do this in the winter? You never see the litter of broken shells in the summer.

Richard Lewis said...

That's a really interesting observation. I haven't noticed this, but I'll be sure to watch when the weather warms. Thanks for the comment.