Bonaparte’s Gull Nacallngaq

by Frank Keim

Original artwork by Frank Keim

Athough the Bonaparte’s gull is Alaska’s smallest gull, I’ve never seen a feistier one, and I suggest not picking a fight with it.* This means, if you approach their nest or their young, you will probably get pecked on the top of your head.

The gull’s Yup’ik name, Nacallngaq, means, “the bird that wears a parka hood” (because of its black head) and joins the ranks of three other birds with the same Yup’ik name: Sabine’s gull, Arctic tern, and Aleutian tern.

Since it usually nests on the lower branches of smaller spruce trees, it is only found during the breeding season in sparsely wooded boreal forest. However, as it migrates north or south, you may see it along the southwest coast of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. For that reason, I only saw it while I lived in Marshall, which is on the edge of the taiga forest.

These gulls appear in early May in the YK Delta, although their arrival is dependent upon their primary food supply, which is mostly insects, but also crustaceans and small fish in open water. As soon as they arrive, the gulls get right down to the business of finding a mate and nesting. They usually do this in small colonies or in isolated pairs.

The mother bird builds the nest on a horizontal lower branch of a small spruce located near water, and it takes the form of an open cup of twigs, bark and small branches, lined with grass, mosses and lichens. She then lays 2-4 buffy-green blotched with brown eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for about 24 days, when the young hatch with eyes open and their bodies covered in down. They are able to stand within a day, but usually remain quiet in the nest for a week while both parents feed them. They then leave the confines of their nest, following their parents to water, where they learn how to forage for food by surface-dipping and jabbing at floating invertebrates.

Within 2-3 more weeks they begin flying with their parents and learn new hunting strategies such as aerial dipping and hovering and plunging from a few meters above the water to feed on insects, crustaceans and small fish. In this way they remind me of Arctic terns.

LYK Delta gulls migrate south very early, beginning in mid-July, first in small flocks, then larger and larger ones, until sometimes they number in the thousands of birds. During the winter they remain in their large flocks on the Pacific coast or on large western inland lakes.

Their scientific name is Chroicocephalus philadelphia. The genus name is a combination of two Greek words, meaning “colored head.” It refers to the dark head that the birds have during the breeding season.

*The gull’s common name was after French-American, Charles Bonaparte (1803-1857), father of systematic ornithology, but I wonder if it also may have originated in part from the fact that Charles’ uncle, Napoleon, although he was a very small man, turned out to be one of the most aggressive leaders in the world at the time.