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Video of gull swallowing a squirrel whole is totally normal and fine, say researchers

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As It Happens6:32Video of seagull swallowing a squirrel whole is totally normal and fine, say researchers

Warning: This story contains graphic video and images. 

A viral video of a herring gull swallowing an entire squirrel whole has many people shocked and horrified. But the people who study these birds say there’s nothing to be alarmed about. 

The clip, which was posted on a wildlife-focused TikTok account, captures the gull gobbling up a fluffy black squirrel in a snake-like fashion. Each time the bird gulps, the unwitting prey’s hind legs and bushy tail disappear further down its gullet. 

“This is not barbaric behaviour. This is just the norm,” Rock, an urban gull researcher from Bristol, England, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

“It’s to be expected from seagulls that they are going to eat whatever is available. And if it happens to be some weakling animal, then they will kill it and they will eat it.”

WATCH: Gull swallows squirrel:

Gulls may be best known for stealing people’s fries at the beach, or tearing open garbage bins in search of a discarded sandwich — but Rock says they are the ultimate omnivores.

“Food, of course, is the key for everything and they know how to get it,” he said. “For these birds, they know everything about everything within their home range. So if one food source dries up, they know exactly where to go for something else.”

And that includes everything from blueberries to half-eaten Big Macs to animals.

“I’ve seen them eating rats, I’ve seen them feasting on pigeons and so on. So it is not an uncommon thing,” he said. “Though, this, I have to say, is the first time I’ve come across a squirrel.”

Louise Blight, an adjust associate professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies, says gulls on the West Coast will often feast on large sea stars.

“I think partly why people are horrified by this video is that they aren’t used to thinking of gulls as marine predators — but their natural diet is not French fries,” she said. “They eat a range of prey around the world, from krill and fish and bivalves to other seabirds.”

A herring gull is seen swallowing a squirrel whole in these stills from a viral TikTok video. (planetaferoz000/TikTok)

John Anderson, a professor of ecology and natural history at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, has been studying gulls for decades. He says while they can and do hunt, he’s rarely seen one killing a small mammal. He suspects the squirrel was already dead when the gull found it.

“Honesty, it’s a herring gull doing what a herring gull does,” Anderson told CBC. “They are scavengers.”

‘They’ve got cast iron stomachs’

But he cautioned against painting gulls with a single brush. Even gulls that nest right next to each other can have completely different routines, personalities and food preferences, he said.

“I can spend, you know, a whole day sitting in my lighthouse watching the birds. And it’s like being in the middle of a wonderful soap opera, because each pair has its own personality,” he said.

“Some are aggressive and some are really passive. And some of them are really exploratory. And some nests are incredibly beautifully decorated, and others are just little depressions in the ground. So it’s the variety that I find really fascinating.”

A man with white hair and a matching beard sits on a bench in front of some cherry blossoms.
Peter Rock is a Bristol, England, researcher who studies urban gull populations. (Submitted by Peter Rock)

Swallowing a whole squirrel may appear unpleasant, but big snacks don’t go down hard for gulls, says Rock. 

That’s because gulls — just like owls — have gizzards that allow them to swallow big prey and filter out the not-so-good-to-eat parts, which they then expel in the form of pellets.

And unlike when people gorge a bit too fervently, the gulls don’t face any unpleasant digestive consequences.

“They’ve got cast iron stomachs,” Rock said.

‘Gulls are poetry in motion’

Anderson says he hopes the video doesn’t further demonize what he says is an important and misunderstood species.

Gull populations are declining worldwide, he said, and they play an important role in ecosystems — not to mention do the important work of cleaning up after humans.

“That’s where things like this video worry me, because people start out with a negative view of gulls and they’re not stopping to actually watch them,” he said. “Gulls are poetry in motion. It’s absolutely wonderful to watch them fly.”

A seagull in flight, mountains and cityscape in the horizon.
A gull swoops over Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver. Gull researcher John Anderson says these misunderstood birds are beautiful, especially when they’re flying. (Norm Stack)

Rock agrees. He has been tagging urban gulls and publishing papers about them for decades, and says they get a bad reputation simply for being resilient and resourceful. 

“What I’m trying to put forward is the truth about these birds, not the assumptions,” he said.

“The pest control industry is making money hand over fist in presenting gulls as the enemies, the seagull menace, all this kind of thing. And, in actual fact, they do have quite a lot to teach us, provided we have the ears to listen.”

Anderson said he’s reminded of a quote from the 1971 film Harold and Maude: “Dreyfus once wrote from Devil’s Island that he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls. For me they will always be glorious birds.”

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