Why Do Gulls Have a Red Spot on Their Bills?

Photograph by UIG/Getty Images

Why Do Gulls Have a Red Spot on Their Bills?

The answer helped develop the science of animal behavior.

Brought to you by BirdNoteĀ®
Published: 10/07/2013

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.

 

Written by Bob Sundstrom

You may have noticed--on a trip to the shore or at a waterfront restaurant where gulls gather--that many gulls have a bright red spot near the tip of their otherwise yellow bills. Behind that red spot lies a considerable tale--that's t-a-l-e!

In the mid-20th Century, Dutch scientist Niko Tinbergen studied nesting Herring Gulls. He noticed that newly hatched gull chicks were fed by their parents only after they pecked at the adults' bills. Tinbergen devised experiments that varied the shape and coloration of the adult's bill. It became clear that the red spot on the adult gull's bill was a crucial visual cue in a chick's demands to be fed, and thus its survival.

Tinbergen also made the case that the chick's attraction to the red spot on the bill was instinctive. This conclusion came at a time when there was furious debate among experts about whether such behavior was learned or innate. Tinbergen's gull research helped lay the groundwork for the science of animal behavior, and in 1973 earned him a Nobel Prize. And it all started with that little red spot.

Learn more about Tinbergen's research--and see a photo of that red spot--on our website, BirdNote.org. I'm Mary McCann.

Bird audio provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Calls of Glaucous-winged Gulls recorded by A.A. Allen. Begging call of Glaucous-winged Gulls recorded by E.S. Booth. Herring Gulls recorded by Martha Fischer.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
Ā© 2013 Tune In to Nature.org      October 2013     Narrator: Mary McCann

Magazine Category

Author Profile

BirdNote

BirdNote strives to transport listeners out of the daily grind and into the natural world with outstanding audio programming and online content. The stories we tell are rich in sound, imagery, and information - connecting the ways and needs of birds to the lives of listeners.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine

Comments

Niko Tinberger earner the

Niko Tinberger earner the Nobel prize jointly with a man named Frisch (and with Lorenz). His brother also earned the Nobel, in Economics, also with a man named Frisch.

birds can see color

birds can see color

How do they discern red?

How do they discern red? Aren't they color-blind?

I think you're thinking of

I think you're thinking of dogs. Also, colorblind does not mean they cannot see color, just that they see only some colors or get the colors mixed up. Think about what humans see when they are color blind.

Also, birds tend to have very

Also, birds tend to have very colorful feathers meant for mating displays and indications of their health. They have to be able to see color for this to be true.

I love Herring gulls, they

I love Herring gulls, they eat plover chciks

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.