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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: Coyote On The Beach

Published: July 2, 2021


By Mark Seth Lender


Herring gull before dawn. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer-in-Residence Mark Seth Lender shares field notes from listening closely to the nuanced calls of herring gulls.

There are at least three relative pitches for every call that herring gulls make. These are applied to discrete sounds of one syllable and to strings of sound consisting of an assemblage of syllables. Volume can be modulated to inflect the beginning, middle, or end of a string. Aside from pitch and volume, there is also variation in speed of delivery and the assemblage of these vocalizations into “phrases” (composed of one or more strings). Thus the flow of sounds varies in many parameters independently. In addition there is a well-articulated overlay of gestures. With these visual and linguistic components, herring gulls are able to say many different things.

The Alarm Call is a good example. An eagle who is genuinely dangerous will evoke a particularly urgent form of alarum. Two winters ago we had a beaver swim up the shoreline. The gulls had never seen that before (neither had I, not in saltwater) and while the resident herring gulls did sound the alarm it was not the same as for the eagles who regularly cruise through. The threat posed by a beaver was by definition indeterminate; perhaps that was what they were saying, that they recognized the anomaly but were not sure of what to make of it. The coyote was met with an alarm call all his own. They did not seem particularly afraid of him but they certainly wanted him gone. Which was exactly what they got.

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