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What You Don't Know About Gulls May Surprise You

A Herring Gull enjoys a freshly cracked clam at an area beach.
A Herring Gull enjoys a freshly cracked clam at an area beach. Photo Credit: William Haffey

There's no doubt birds are clever animals. 

The speech capacity of parrots is well known, as is the mental acumen of crows and ravens. One species of crow, found only on the Pacific island of New Caledonia, has become particularly adroit at using tools to obtain hidden or hard to access food. 

You need not venture to the other side of the globe, however, to witness birds using ingenious methods to obtain a tasty morsel. A winter visit to any area coastline during low tide will likely reveal some pretty remarkable gull behavior, as these aerial gourmands have learned a new way to crack into succulent clams.

As the tide retreats and buried clams become more accessible, gulls patrol the mudflats looking for their bivalve prey. Once a clam is spotted, the gull will extract it from the mud and, with the clam in its bill, search for a hard surface capable of shattering the shell. 

Once the surface is found, the gull will drop the clam and quickly gobble up the meat before its companions notice. While the traditional target for the clam-dropping was probably just rocks, modern gulls have taken to using rooftops and asphalt as a convenient alternative. 

Researchers have proposed that such a change, in which a bird has altered its behavior to benefit from human presence, might be indicative of social learning. One bird initially attempted to use a man-made surface to crack a clam, and others followed suit because of the pioneer’s success. 

Studies have also shown that gulls have gotten good at the shell-cracking, fine tuning their dropping height to effectively crack clams of a certain size. So, next time you notice shells strewn across your local beach’s parking lot, never mind the mess and recall the incredible capacity for avian learning and ingenuity. 

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