Reader’s wildlife photos: the story of Rita and Rocco

June 23, 2014 • 6:35 am

Reader Ed Kroc from Vancouver sent photos and a story about the kind of biological drama that goes on all around us, completely unnoticed. This one involves geese and gulls. (Click pictures to enlarge.)

I wanted to pass along a sequence of photos illustrating the eventful few months a gull pair across the street from me has had.  These aren’t particularly good photos from an artistic point of view; I only have access to a single, far away view.  But I thought you might like the story they tell.  I’ll explain in words too, if you can forgive any unintended verbosity.

I am lucky enough to have at least partial views of the nesting sites of several gull pairs from my apartment.  They are all glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens), the typical Vancouver gull.  A few of these pairs I’ve watched for several years now.  I always struggle with my desire to anthropomorphize other animals, and probably have a tendency to project my own emotions onto them a bit too often.  But nevertheless, I am confident claiming that at least some of these gulls exhibit distinct personalities, and one of the surest ways this is manifest is in their associations with their respective partners.  The pair depicted in these pictures, whom I have somewhat arbitrarily dubbed Rocco and Rita, are one of the more affectionate pairs I have had the pleasure to watch.

On to the pictures.  We start off in mid-April.  You may recall a couple photos I forwarded along about a month ago of a Canada goose family my partner and I helped rescue off the roof of a building across the street from our apartment.  As I mentioned briefly then, that mother goose had chosen to lay her eggs on top of a gull pair’s annual nesting site….  The first photo shows Rocco and Rita camped out next to the mother goose on her clutch, Rita glaring.

1RR watching goose

In mid-May, about a week after the goslings hatched and were relocated to Stanley Park, Rocco and Rita started laying their own clutch on the rooftop.  Interestingly, they did not use the same location that they had in the past, presumably because the geese had nested there.  Instead, they moved their nest to a central location on the small rooftop, which is unusual for urban gulls as it leaves them more exposed to predators and to the elements.  Perhaps this was a purposely brazen attempt to reassert their territorial claim?

Regardless, shortly after the first egg was laid, the geese pair actually started returning to the nesting site, thinking the territory was still theirs.  They had paired up with two other Canada goose families in Stanley Park by then, so both adults could sometimes leave the chicks with the other guardians.  Now though, the intrusion would not be tolerated peaceably by the gulls.  The pair would buzz and dive-bomb the geese, and the geese would respond by ducking and hissing, stubbornly refusing to budge.  This ugliness went on for several days, at least four times per day (likely more as I was out of the apartment for much of the day).  Each round would last 10-15 minutes, ending in either the geese getting annoyed enough to leave, or the gulls tiring and so settling to wait the intruders out on a nearby parapet.

2RR attacking geese

In the attached picture, you can see a single drab, greenish egg in the gull’s nest in the middle of the roof, as the male attacks one of the geese.  There is in fact a second egg in this picture, but it has been kicked out of the nest by one of the geese as it ran for cover (it’s at 7:30 from the egg inside the nest, but blends in well with the surrounding greenery).  This second egg was destroyed in the fight and was probably consumed later by the female gull for energy.

Thankfully, this conflict was not too prolonged.  After four days, the geese realized this territory was no longer theirs and stopped coming by.  The third picture shows Rita returning to her nest with the single surviving egg.  She laid her third and final egg a few days later.

3RR with egg

The rest of the incubation period went by uneventfully.  The fourth picture shows Rocco on the nest love-biting Rita.  Gulls always share incubation duties quite evenly, but they don’t always keep each other company.  Rocco and Rita are one pair that seems to enjoy spending time together.  Often, as one sits on the nest, the other will sit very close by.  Sometimes too the one on the nest will gently bite and tug at their partner’s chest.

4RR love biting

Finally, last week the two chicks were ready to unegg themselves.  The fifth picture shows Rocco trading spots with Rita as she nuzzles her body against the newborns (one day old) inside the nest.

5RR with newborns

Gull chicks are precocial and typically leave the nest cup within 24-36 hours after birth.  The next day, Rocco and Rita were each feeding the chicks bits of regurgitated fish or seastar meat, as in the sixth picture.  Note the excellent camouflage the chicks come equipped with, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the nest itself.

6RR feeding time

The last picture shows the family resting together mid-afternoon.  Rocco sits on the nest with one of the chicks warm underneath, and the other literally under wing (you can see the top of the chick’s head poking out between the father’s wing and body).  Rita nuzzles in right next to her partner.  I don’t have a huge observational sample to draw from, but this behaviour is not typical among the other gull pairs that I can watch.  They all share parenting duties quite evenly, and help each other out as needed, but this is the only pair I have witnessed that seems to display this level of presumably unnecessary affection toward each other.  I’m not sure what to make of that, maybe nothing.  But it is interesting!

7RR family

15 thoughts on “Reader’s wildlife photos: the story of Rita and Rocco

    1. In much of the Northwest, moss on the roof is something that happens whether you want it or not. If you don’t want it, you must take steps to prevent it.

    2. Many of the rooftops in downtown Vancouver will be covered with medium-sized rocks, as you can see in the pictures. I assume there is some reason for this, but I’m not sure what it is (maybe helps with moisture/evaporation? It is very rainy here). Regardless, these rocky foundations make it relatively easy for moss and grasses to grow. I imagine too that it helps when birds like these gulls bring dirt and plant materials back to these rooftops to build a nest. I bet all kinds of seeds and plants get transported this way.

  1. I imagine that the roof top nest has some advantages, being away from many predators. Could this have anything to do with the extra closeness between parents (time spent together) that the photoghapher has remarked on?

    1. Gulls are certainly one species of animal that thrive in an urban setting, and the lack of predation is surely a large contributing factor. It’s interesting to think how this fact can change the dynamic between mated pairs. Unfortunately, I’ve never had the opportunity to watch mates rear clutches in the wild!

      Regarding this particular pair though, there are two other rooftops of comparable size with gull nests that I watch from my apartment (also, one very large rooftop that houses 5 or 6 nests). None of these other pairs seem to act quite as fondly toward each other. But Rita and Rocco often rest together with their wings or chests touching, and they also seem to spend less time solo parenting. They have had at least two clutches in years past before this one, so I don’t think this is a reflection of inexperience.

      But as I said, maybe this doesn’t mean anything. It’s interesting to speculate though – it does make you wonder.

  2. Thank you for sharing this tender story and lovely photos! What part of the country is this occurring. Here on the east coast (VA), I too used to wondered where gull chicks grow-up, until I learned they love uninhabited coastal islands. Scientists are studying “urban bird life” (like your gulls) as it is increasing in frequency – perhaps among even more species.

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