Gulls Simplified: A Comparative Approach to Identification by Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson: A review

Ask your average birder about what families of birds are most difficult to correctly identify in the field and I can pretty much guarantee that gulls will rank high on their list. I mean they are all combinations of gray, white, and black. What can the poor birder latch onto as an easy way to distinguish individual species?

Since the sainted Roger Tory Petersen published his first field guide to birds back in 1934, field identification of birds has focused on plumage - its colors and patterns. But this just doesn't work really well for gulls. In addition to the fact that they are generally combinations of the three aforementioned colors, or non-colors, they go through a series of plumage changes over the years from their juvenile feathers to adulthood. Moreover, even in adulthood, the plumage of a gull in winter can be drastically different from that during the breeding season. Again, what's the poor birder to do?

Well, Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson have some thoughts on that subject and have come up with a method of comparison that should prove useful to serious birders. It essentially involves a focus on size, body shape, and structural features, along with plumage details, in order to make identification in the field easier. Mastering this method, one could potentially identify a gull based on only seeing its backlit silhouette. As a guide, the book features pictures of such silhouettes of the twenty-two species (including one that has two sub-species) that occur regularly in North America.

The book also contains plentiful full-color pictures of the gulls in their habitats, along with all the information that any good field guide has about distribution, the status of the species, unique tidbits about their habits, food, and nesting. Gulls typically mate for life and both members of the dyad feed and protect the nestlings.

Gulls are intelligent and adaptable birds and this book should give all its readers better skills at being able to identify individual species, as well as a greater appreciation of the family as a whole. It is written in an easily understood conversational style that is appropriate to the information being presented and that makes it a very useful addition to the birder's library.

(Disclaimer: A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher, Princeton University Press, for the purpose of this review. Opinions expressed here are entirely my own.) 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  


  1. You're getting lucky with these birding publications, Dorothy, they are tailored for your interests/needs. :-)
    It's good that there's now modern guidelines for birders to identify gulls further. I would think that a classification in terms of size doesn't help much because size can be relative, but silhouettes or other markings would definitely improve the chances of identifying individuals correctly.

    1. I'll take any edge I can get when it comes to identifying gulls.

  2. I never considered that gulls had differences. I thought they were all just gulls. Next time I am near the beach I will observe more closely. (Princeton was my home town growing up.)

    1. Well, they are all gulls but there are differences. Differences enough to distinguish 22 different species in North America and even more throughout the world. But the differences can be very subtle and difficult to see in the field. This guide should help.


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