I live in Philadelphia, which is a quick enough drive to the Jersey Shore when traffic is good, but still pretty far from the ocean. Yet, the parking lot of my local grocery store is almost always full of seagulls. What gives?
Well, ornithologists will point out, “seagulls” are more accurately called gulls and while they do like to be near water, they don’t strictly live by the sea. The Ring-billed gull prefers the interior of the country, and some never even get near the ocean. The grey gull is usually found on the western coast of South America, but heads away from the shore and into Chile’s Atacama Desert to breed. Even the Herring gull, which the Cornell University ornithology lab calls the quintessential “seagull,” can be found pretty far inland during both the summer breeding season and the winter.
Pennsylvania is attractive to gulls, according to the state’s game commission, because it sits between two major gull population centers: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. It’s a good spot to make a temporary home (or even a permanent one—both Ring-billed and Herring gulls are year-round residents in some areas), and there’s plenty to eat.
“Gulls come to Pennsylvania because it’s convenient,” writes Joe Kosack, a Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “and because it has rivers that are loaded with small aquatic critters they eat readily, hundreds of restaurants that serve fast food indirectly to gulls, and plenty of parking lots to loaf in.”
The gulls are drawn to parking lots mainly for two reasons. The first is food. Gulls are opportunistic feeders and will eat most things that are available to them, rather than specializing in one kind of prey or food. They’ll feed on fish, insects, small rodents, fruits and a lot of things discarded by humans. Parking lots offer plenty of trash and scraps, especially if there’s a supermarket or restaurant there, by way of dumpsters, garbage cans, and people who can’t be bothered to use either of those. Plus, manicured grass and other landscaped patches around the pavement can be good places to look for bugs.
The second thing that parking lots have going for them is that they’re spacious, open and flat. This allows the gulls to congregate en masse near food sources and gives them clear views in all directions so they can keep an eye out for danger.