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Santa's Seagulls

When you think of Santa, what birds do you think of?
If you’ve seen the cards and television specials, you probably imagine Santa being surrounded by penguins, puffins and some sweet little songbirds. After all, those are the birds of the North Pole, right? Didn’t an “Arctic puffin” wave good bye to Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) in “Elf?” Didn’t little red birds fly around a tree in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?” And penguins, Santa is always surrounded by penguins. They sure like the cold.

Well, it is true that penguins like the cold, all right. Unfortunately, it’s the frigid waters of the South Pole that they swim in. They are about as far away from Santa Claus as you can possibly get. And puffins? They do live pretty far north, but don’t quite make it to the North Pole. And actually, there is no puffin that is officially known as the “arctic puffin.” There are three species of puffin: the Atlantic puffin, horned puffin and tufted puffin. The bird Buddy waved to was probably an Atlantic puffin, although all three species look very similar.

And the red birds that flew around the tree in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer?” Not really found in the North Pole, either. There are no land birds in the North Pole.

So what birds does Santa see around his workshop in the North Pole?

Believe it or not: seagulls.

Yes, the three most common birds in the far north regions are all gulls. To be specific, the black-legged kittiwake, Ross’s gull and the ivory gull.

The Ross’s gull is the only bird of the three that winters that far north, probably the only bird Santa sees as he packs up his sleigh. They are small, white gulls, with a black line circling their heads. According to the Audubon Society field guide, when a Ross’s gull makes a rare appearance to the lower 48 states, it attracts a lot of attention from birders and is even covered in the press.

The other two gulls, the kittiwake and ivory gull, breed up by the North Pole, but winter further south. The kittiwake is a pelagic or ocean species that breeds on cliffs up in the Arctic circle. The ivory gull, according to the field guide, follows polar bears around as they hunt and picks at the carcasses left behind. (Interestingly, polar bears are also rarely found at the North Pole. Like the puffins, they live far north, but their range stops somewhat short of the true “top of the world.”

It’s hard to imagine someone like Santa being surrounded by seagulls. These birds, after all, are usually associated with the summer and the beach. You never see a gull on a Christmas card or a Christmas ornament. But in real life, they are the most common birds in the North Pole.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

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