It may be said that Franklin's gulls have no fixed address, but this does not mean the birds are homeless. Franklin's gulls wander about the drier parts of interior North America, seeking suitable habitat for nesting. For Franklin's gulls, that means large, semi-permanent marshes with fairly deep, mostly open water surrounded by emergent vegetation.
Such places occur across the Northern Plains, and once Franklin's gulls have found one, they soon congregate in a few large colonies, sometimes numbering thousands of birds. In any given year, probably all of the world's breeding Franklin's gulls crowd into fewer than 50 such colonies.
Most of these colonies occur in a vast area running from Osakis to Saskatoon - in other words, from central Minnesota to central Saskatchewan. Historically, nesting colonies have occurred in both western Minnesota and northeastern South Dakota and in much of North Dakota east of the Missouri River. Manitoba's wetlands, biologically similar to our own, also have nesting colonies of Franklin's gulls.
This puts the Red River Valley well within the "prospecting range" for peripatetic gulls, and most casual gull encounters occur before nesting season begins in mid-May and after young-of-the-year leave the colonies in late summer.
Franklin's gulls occur regularly in the spring, often following farm tillage equipment, and in the fall, when they sometimes gather in large flocks to catch insects on the wing. Franklin's gull is not the heroic bird of Utah, however. The species honored with a monument in Salt Lake City, and Utah's state bird, is the California gull. Nor is Franklin's gull the most likely gull to be encountered in our area. That title goes to ring-billed gull.
Franklin's gull can be separated from these two species at sight. Franklin's gull has a black head, and it shows white "windows" on the wingtips in flight. Both California and ring-billed gulls are light-headed gulls best told apart by size - California's is larger - and at close range by the pattern on the bill. California gull bills lack the ring. Of these three, Franklin's gull is the smallest, lightest and most delicate in appearance. This is enhanced in the spring by a blush of pink on the birds' breasts. This disappears as nesting season advances.
The only other gull with a black head likely to be seen here is Bonaparte's, a similar but smaller bird whose black feathers start higher on the back of the neck than on Franklin's gull - a key difference. Bonaparte's nests farther north and occurs here in migration.
Franklin's gulls often choose colony sites that are remote and hard to reach. Partly for these reasons, the species was overlooked; Audubon didn't include it among his bird paintings, though he spent most of the summer of 1843 in what is now North Dakota. He concentrated on grassland birds and mammals, though, and apparently didn't encounter Franklin's gulls.
The species is named for Sir John Franklin, who was on the Saskatchewan River at about the same time. Franklin and his crew were lost on a later Arctic expedition, sparking a search that lasted more than a century and a half; remains of his ship were found in 2014.
The bird's association with Franklin has enhanced its aura.
Franklin's gull has its own allure, though, since its delicate beauty, its graceful flight and its economic importance have been widely praised - the last prosaically but the former quite lyrically.
Herbert K. Job indulged in descriptions of both kinds. He was Connecticut's state ornithologist and an early activist in the National Audubon Society, formed to protest the use of bird feathers in women's hats. Based on his experiences in North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Job wrote one of the society's early educational leaflets - No. 44 in the series - published in Bird Lore, the Society's magazine, in 1910.
"Never may heartless fashion dare to wrong the western farmers and the multitude who look to him for bread by seeking to appropriate the lone settler's pet-a species important among the feathered custodians of the nation's granaries."
He called the gull colonies that he found "white cities," and declared that "another attractive element in this bird is its restlessness and mysteriousness. It is nearly always on the move."
He was quite right about all of this. Franklin's gulls, birds of no fixed address, spend the winter on the west coast of South America - a desert environment quite unlike the freshwater wetlands of the Northern Plains.