Breeding adaptations of Franklin's gull (larus pipixcan) to a marsh habitat

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The behaviour and ecology of Franklin's gull were studied at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota to determine the adaptations of the species for nesting in marshes. Two factors seemed to be important in colony site selection: cattail dispersion pattern and cattail density. Franklin's gulls prefer to nest in cattail areas closest to open water. The number of nests per unit area decreased as cattail density increased. Nest site selection is dependent on aggression and visibility. Visibility from nest level is the result of cattail placement and height. The distance between nests was directly correlated with visibility. Aggression by gulls on nests was lowered experimentally by decreasing visibility and raised by increasing visibility. Nest platforms were constructed of cattail material, and were attached to cattail stems. Nest material was added to the nests throughout the incubation and brooding period. Material was usually added following nest relief. The egg laying period was from 6 to 28 May. There was more synchrony of egg laying in sub-areas of the colony than in the colony as a whole. Successive eggs in clutches were laid at 24- to 48-hr intervals. The distance between nests decreased during the season as pairs filled in areas that were not defended. Territorial pairs defended an area up to 10 m from their stations prior to egg laying, but defended only the area within 3 m of their nests during incubation. Both members of pairs incubated the eggs and cared for the young. The incubation period was 24 days. The primary predators on adults and young were marsh hawk, great horned owl and mink. Franklin's gulls do not eat eggs or young of gulls. Adults fed on earthworms, insects and grain. Most marked adults fed within 16 km of the colony. Chicks were fed primarily on earthworms. The hatching period was from 30 May to 21 June. Chicks of all ages tested on a visual cliff apparatus were able to perceive the drop. Chicks tested on a 30-degree incline apparatus walked up it when 6 days old and younger, and walked down at 12 days of age and older. Brood mobility was less than in ground nesting species of gulls. In an undisturbed colony the chicks remained on the nest platforms until they were 25 to 30 days old although they were capable of swimming shortly after hatching. Individual recognition between parents and chicks appeared later in this species than in ground-nesting gulls. Adults accepted alien chicks (experimentally exchanged) that were younger than about 14 days old until their own chicks were over that age. Adults accepted larger and older broods than their own, as well as broods of mixed ages. Chicks began to react differently to strange adults at about 16 days of age. The breeding chronology of Franklin's gull is compressed when compared to that of other gulls. Possible selection pressures affecting this synchrony are discussed. The behaviour of the marsh-nesting Franklin's gull is compared with that of typical ground-and cliffnesting gulls; the possibility that the ancestral gull may have been a marsh nester is discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)521-567
Number of pages47
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1974

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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