In life, ivory gull draws crowd—and in death, will contribute to science

Ivory gull flying ovef water

(Elliot Nelson; 17 March 2017)

On the evening of March 9, 2017, Lauren LaFave, 16, was walking across a bridge over the Flint River on the campus of the University of Michigan-Flint. LaFave noticed an unusually white bird resting on the bridge and was able to snap a few quick pictures on her phone. After those photos were shared among a number of Facebook groups it was confirmed that the bird photographed was, in fact, one of the rarest birds in all of North America, an ivory gull.

To understand the rarity of finding an ivory gull in downtown Flint, one must understand a bit about the species. The ivory gull is a bird rarely found south of the Arctic Circle. In North America, ivory gulls breed in the high arctic regions of Canada on bare rocks exposed only during the summer months. Unlike most arctic birds that head south for the winter, the ivory gull spends its winters remaining in the arctic. It can be found foraging on pack ice in the Bering Sea as well as the ice edge region between 50°–65° north latitude around Labrador and Greenland. The bird research database Birds of North American Online notes that only 2000-3000 of these birds breed in North America. It is listed in the 2014 State of the Birds report as being a species that will most likely become threatened or endangered unless conservation actions are taken. The species decline is due in part to declining sea ice associated with climate change as well as high mercury levels that accumulate in their tissue.

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