Thursday, May 17, 2018


Original Oil on Panel, 4 x 4 inches

This is the rarest bird I’ve seen, an Ivory Gull. It’s a migratory bird that lives in the Arctic and breeds only in the Arctic Atlantic sector. The American Birding Association (ABA) considers it a Code 3 bird, which means it’s a rare bird in my neck of the woods. Specifically, Code 3 birds occur in very low numbers, but annually, in an area essentially encompassing North America north of Mexico. The ABA’s classification system ranges from Codes 1-6, with the latter indicating birds which cannot be found, are extinct, or are found only in captivity.

The bird paintings I’ve done, except for this one, have been either Code 1 or Code 2 birds, i.e. fairly common. To put Code 3 birds in perspective, birders in the midst of their big year, trying to find the most species of birds in a certain geographical area will, in all likelihood, immediately stop whatever they’re doing, hop on a plane, or drive many hours, to add a Code 3 bird to their year’s list. Extremely passionate birders will do the same, because rare really means rare.

Luck was responsible for my sighting. This bird visited Duluth, MN, early January 2016. News had gotten out of its presence in Canal Park, flying amongst other gulls, along Lake Superior’s shoreline. There were plenty of bird enthusiasts around, making the bird easy to spot simply by watching where the photographers were aiming their lenses. Unfortunately, this bird was found dead days later, and the cause of death remains a mystery.

A year later, another Ivory Gull was spotted March 9, 2017, in Flint, MI. It, too, allowed birders a rare opportunity to see it, but also died within days. Unlike Duluth’s Ivory Gull, this one was sufficiently intact for necropsy results to be performed by the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology. “The final diagnoses were: West Nile Virus; Renal Tubular Degeneration; Renal Tubular Mineralization; Pulmonary Congestion, Pulmonary Edema, and Malnutrition (Reported),” (Petoskey Audubon, 2017).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Ivory Gull as near threatened. Its current population trend is decreasing with possible reasons being “climate change, pollution, and increasing human intrusion or hunting within breeding areas” (IUCN, 2018).

I may never see another Code 3 bird again. It takes one to be observant in the first place to simply recognize these rare birds within our midst, so I’m grateful to the person who first saw the Ivory Gull in Duluth, and told others, whoever that was. So, keep your eyes and ears open. There may be a Code 3 bird near you. 


American Birding Association. n.d. Checklist Codes. Retrieved from

Petoskey Audubon [Washtenaw Audubon]. (2017, August 29). Update on Ivory Gull. [Facebook status update]. Retrieved from

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2017-3. Retrieved May 17, 2018 from

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