Gulls and starfish: An almost disturbing essay in photos


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Gulls eating starfish are by no means a phenomenon, as I come across them at least a few times a year. It does not however seem to be their staple diet. It can be a little disturbing to watch at times, as they don’t ever seem to eb able to get them down easily, and every now and then the starfish appears to become lodged, at least temporarily in the throat of a gull. This photo essay is titled “almost disturbing” (and may be fully disturbing to some) because I show some of these gulls swallowing whole live starfish, and some of them seem to become lodged in the throat of the gull. They are interesting photographs, but not always pretty. (But such is life.) I’ll start with some of the more benign photos to give folks a chance to not see the later ones…

A gull with a prize of a starfish, preparative to dining

I mostly come across gulls eating starfish at especially low tides (usually the neap tide), when the water is out a little farther than usual, which is enough to leave them exposed. Occasionally I will see a starfish peeling from a rock, when it is exposed at low tide, and its own weight, unsupported by the water that would normally be around it, becomes too much for its sucker like (and hand like) psuedopods to maintain its grip on the rocks.

A starfish peeling from the rock face it was stuck to, as its own weight is too much at low tide

Gulls are opportunists, and seeing these easily accessible meals, (it is too hard to peel them from a rock if they are latched on) will scoop them up and attempt to eat them, often times being successful.

It looks decidedly uncomfortable however, taking several minutes to swallow, with the starfish often becoming lodged in the throat for several seconds to several minutes before it makes it all the way to the belly.

Notice the "tumor" in the gulls neck... Yup, that's a starfish

I have also come across instances where the gull doesn’t seem to be able to get the starfish all the way down. I don’t know if this is life threatening. Perhaps the gull finishes swallowing after I leave, or perhaps it can spit it back up… I am not sure… Perhaps it becomes lodged there till the gull and the starfish are both dead. I am not entirely sure of the final results all of the time. The following photographs are from one such gull that I came across and photographed while kayaking in Drake’s Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

It looks a little crazed in the eyes as it tried to swallow this starfish down, but can't seem to make any progress

I see the size of its beak, and the amount of starfish remaining, and I have my doubts

The gull seems to even be having trouble keeping its own tongue in its mouth, much less downing the starfish

I never saw the end results of this starfish/gull encounter. I don’t know who came across the victor in this battle, or for that matter if either of them did. I watched this struggle going on for nearly twenty minutes, but worried my continued presence might begin to overly disturb the combatants, and so left them to their silent battle. (I couldn’t hear any noises from either of them.)

Most of the photographs in this post were captured either in Tomales Bay or Drake’s Estero, both within the Point Reyes National Seashore. There were at least two species of gull eating the starfish, if not more. Please let me know if any of you out there have ever seen this behavior.

For more animal tongues, you can have a look at these animals-

River Otter tongue
Tule Elk tongue
White-tailed Kite tongue (it’s a type of bird/hawk/raptor
Song Sparrow tongue while singing
Sea Lion tongue

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in kayak photography, marine life, nature photography, Photo Essay, tongues, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Gulls and starfish: An almost disturbing essay in photos

  1. I have never seen gulls eating starfish as we have no starfish in the Great Lakes. I have seen gulls trying to swallow large food objects, barf them back up, and then try to swallow them again time after time until they are able to keep whatever it is they have been swallowing down. It seems to be common behavior for gulls, and I don’t find the beaches littered with dead gulls, so it must be the way they eat.

    • Very true, I see very few dead gulls littering the beach. They are either very determined or… or I don’t know what to try eating the same overly large meal over and over like this, and up in the Great Lakes.

      Greedy guts. I think Finding Nemo was onto something with its gull depiction.

  2. Maggie Rufo says:

    I have seen this. It was during a Christmas Bird count that I did in the Marin Headlands, We went down to Kirby Cove and that’s when I saw it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t know if it was “normal” behavior, but since then I’ve read a few other accounts. Your photos are exactly how it went down (excuse the pun) the time I saw it. As I recall, when last seen, the sea star had disappeared into the gull[let]!

    • I’ve witnessed it at least half a dozen times, with only the once when I didn’t see the gull manage to down its fallen star. I am glad I was able to photograph what you saw. I imagine when you saw it, the gull had more binoculars trained on it than most, with a crowd of counters along. You all probably had a blast watching and discussing it.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your story Maggie

  3. Pingback: Life As a Starfish ! | ZOO*3700's Blog

  4. cindydyer says:

    Great posting, Galen! I particularly enjoyed it because three years ago I was vacationing in and around San Francisco and touring Napa and Sonoma Valley and came across a similar scene. My friend Sue and stopped at an area of the Pacific coast called Goat Rock Beach by Bodega Bay in Sonoma County. I wanted to get some photographs of the coastline. When we got down to the beach, I spied a seagull with 1/2 of a starfish in its mouth. I hadn’t ever seen this before and actually wasn’t sure it was a starfish at first. He was barely moving, just staring (the gull and the starfish!). He was quite a distance from me and I thought he had a GROWTH on his beak! I changed to my 80-400 zoom lens and was able to discern that it was a starfish and not a tumor. I watched him for at least 20 minutes and was actually concerned that it was stuck! The gull didn’t look distressed, but what I found funny was there were two other gulls about 10-12 feet away from him just watching him…I suppose hoping he would drop it so they could go after ABC starfish (already-been-chewed)! He eventually did cough it up. It was such a site!

    You can see the photo in the collage that accompanies this blog posting, one of many from that trip (the remainder are in the archives on the right under August 2007):

    http://cindydyer.wordpress.com/2007/08/28/napa-sanoma-valley-8242007/

    • That’s a wonderful capture of a gull trying to down a starfish. Well done and good eye for observing it! I know the goat rock area fairly well, although I have never been to Goat Rock itself. (I spent a couple of years going to a really fun rock out crop in the Goat Rock area, thinking it was the rock itself, but was horribly mistaken. It was however a great place to watch the sunset while sipping a beer with friends.) I will definitely try to visit it now, as it is not too far off from where I live, but preferably at a low tide, when there is more of a chance to see starfish and other sub tidal marine creatures. Gulls rate such greedy guts, scavengers, and bullies, that I am not surprised that there were two others waiting in the wings.

      Such a bizarre thing to see. I am coming across a surprising number of people that have witnessed this same thing, since I posted this, that it is less and less of a phenomenon, and more and more a rarely observed regular occurrence.

      It looks like your entire trip was quite the experience, and I am happy that you got to experience my home neighborhood in such a rich fashion

  5. ingrid says:

    Galen, what a beautiful blog! I came upon it through a chance Google search.

    Like your other commenters, I’ve seen this gull-sea-star encounter as well. I saw it occasionally on my home-turf California beaches, but am seeing it even more often here in Seattle where I’m spending a few years. There are a lot of small sea stars visible in the shallows of the waterfront rocky areas which probably accounts for the number of times I’ve now witnessed gulls eating them here. Most recently, yesterday.

    The first time I ever saw this process, though, I had the same reaction as many do: I freaked. I thought the sea star was lodged and, as you say, it is a live sea star. It took that particular gull, the first one I saw, 20 or so minutes to swallow it whole.

    A couple of years ago I read a short article in a marine sciences newsletter that speculated on why gulls might go through this arduous process. The possibility of saponins as anti-parasitics was noted. (It’s on page 10 of this newsletter: http://www.bms.bc.ca/resources/library/pdf/BMSCnewsletter3(1).pdf)

    Glad to have come upon your photos and writings.

  6. Pingback: FISHBIO: Fisheries research, monitoring, and conservation › Big gulp

  7. I witnessed this today. It was a low tide and a wading seagull plucked the starfish up and began stuffing it in. It was a large starfish and 10 minutes later the starfish was still half in and half out. I had to catch my water taxi so I don’t know how the story ended. Thanks for sharing your story.

  8. Ron Frank says:

    Gulls are a common predator of starfish. I did not know that until I recently read about it. Seagull in fact are the starfishes most common predator, ohh not counting man.

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