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Why Do Seagulls Hang Out in Parking Lots?

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I live in Philadelphia, which is a quick enough drive to the Jersey Shore when traffic is good, but still pretty far from the ocean. Yet, the parking lot of my local grocery store is almost always full of seagulls. What gives?

Well, ornithologists will point out, “seagulls” are more accurately called gulls and while they do like to be near water, they don’t strictly live by the sea. The Ring-billed gull prefers the interior of the country, and some never even get near the ocean. The grey gull is usually found on the western coast of South America, but heads away from the shore and into Chile’s Atacama Desert to breed. Even the Herring gull, which the Cornell University ornithology lab calls the quintessential “seagull,” can be found pretty far inland during both the summer breeding season and the winter. 

Pennsylvania is attractive to gulls, according to the state’s game commission, because it sits between two major gull population centers: the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. It’s a good spot to make a temporary home (or even a permanent one—both Ring-billed and Herring gulls are year-round residents in some areas), and there’s plenty to eat.

“Gulls come to Pennsylvania because it’s convenient,” writes Joe Kosack, a Wildlife Conservation Education Specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “and because it has rivers that are loaded with small aquatic critters they eat readily, hundreds of restaurants that serve fast food indirectly to gulls, and plenty of parking lots to loaf in.”

The gulls are drawn to parking lots mainly for two reasons. The first is food. Gulls are opportunistic feeders and will eat most things that are available to them, rather than specializing in one kind of prey or food. They’ll feed on fish, insects, small rodents, fruits and a lot of things discarded by humans. Parking lots offer plenty of trash and scraps, especially if there’s a supermarket or restaurant there, by way of dumpsters, garbage cans, and people who can’t be bothered to use either of those. Plus, manicured grass and other landscaped patches around the pavement can be good places to look for bugs. 

The second thing that parking lots have going for them is that they’re spacious, open and flat. This allows the gulls to congregate en masse near food sources and gives them clear views in all directions so they can keep an eye out for danger. 

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Animals
Owning a Dog May Add Years to Your Life, Study Shows
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We've said that having a furry friend can reduce depression, promote better sleep, and encourage more exercise. Now, research has indicated that caring for a canine might actually extend your lifespan.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have an innate sense of comfort and increased well-being. A new paper published in Scientific Reports and conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden looked at the health records of 3.4 million of the country's residents. These records typically include personal data like marital status and whether the individual owns a pet. Researchers got additional insight from a national dog registry providing ownership information. According to the study, those with a dog for a housemate were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease or any other cause during the study's 12-year duration.

The study included adults 40 to 80 years old, with a mean age of 57. Researchers found that dogs were a positive predictor in health, particularly among singles. Those who had one were 33 percent less likely to die early than those who did not. Authors didn't conclude the exact reason behind the correlation: It could be active people are more likely to own dogs, that dogs promoted more activity, or that psychological factors like lowered incidences of depression might bolster overall well-being. Either way, having a pooch in your life could mean living a longer one.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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