Named for its fun and distinctive call, the laughing gull will put a smile on any birder's face. These hooded gulls can be difficult to identify properly, however, because there are several similar species and immature plumages that can be tricky to tell apart.
Larus atricilla, Leucophaeus atricilla
- Bill: Thick, dark red that may appear black, slight droop at the tip, tip may show dark smudge
- Size: 16 inches long with 40-42-inch wingspan, long legs, wings and neck
- Colors: Black, white, gray, red, dark brown, tan
- Markings: Genders are similar with a small very dark brown or blackish hood and white arcs above and below the eye. A very thin red eye ring may not be easily visible. The underparts and nape are plain, bright white. Back and wings are medium gray. Primary feathers are black with very small white spots on the tips, though those spots may wear off and be difficult to see. Primary feathers also appear dark underneath when the bird is in flight. Legs and feet vary from dark red-black to a brighter red. The tail is white. In winter (non-breeding) plumage, these birds have paler gray upperparts and lack the dark hood, with the white head smudged with gray that is strongest on the auriculars. The bill is black in winter.
Juvenile birds are mottled tan and light gray with darker primary feathers and a mottled tan wash on the breast. The lower abdomen and undertail coverts are white, and the tail shows a wide dark band near the tip. The bill is black. Juveniles take three years to reach mature plumage.
Fish, insects, carrion, mollusks, eggs, trash (See: Omnivorous)
Habitat and Migration:
These gulls prefer coastal areas and shorelines, though they can regularly be found in parks, plowed agricultural fields, parking lots and landfills, often far from coasts. The laughing gull is found year-round along the coasts from the southern tip of Texas to central Virginia, as well as throughout the Caribbean. In summer, the breeding range extends north to Maine as well as along coasts between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico and along waterways further inland in the Great Plains region. In winter, northern populations of these birds migrate and the wintering range extends to southern Baja, interior Mexico and both Pacific and Caribbean coasts as far south as Peru and Brazil.
These gulls are frequently recorded as vagrants much further inland than would be expected, and they are often displaced by hurricanes and other storms that blow them far from their typical range. Rare but regular sightings are also recorded much further afield, including in Europe and Australia.
The distinctive call of this gull is a long, slow, descending "ha-ha-haa-haa-haaaa" series, with later syllables more drawn out than the first notes. The number of syllables in the call can vary, but the volume is loud and the call can carry great distances. These are very vocal birds and can create quite a cacophony in large flocks.
These are gregarious birds and will often congregate in large flocks, often with other gulls or terns. They can be aggressive when feeding, and have been seen snatching fish out of pelicans' pouches or stealing food from other birds. They are also excellent fliers and will soar or wheel for long periods while scouting for food sources, often following fishing boats hoping for handouts.
These are monogamous birds and colonial nesters, often sharing nesting colonies of up to 50,000 birds. Both parents work together to create a shallow scrape nest on the ground or in low vegetation, sparsely lined with grass or sticks. Eggs are a buff-olive color with brown spotting or splotches, and 2-4 eggs per brood is most common. Only one brood is laid each year.
Both parents share incubation duties for 23-25 days, and after the chicks hatch, both parents continue to care for them for an additional 30-35 days. At first, food is regurgitated to the chicks, but later whole foods will be offered.
Attracting Laughing Gulls:
While these are not backyard birds, laughing gulls can be attracted to birders on the beach if food is offered. They can be aggressive, however, diving for food tossed in the air or taking food directly from the hand, and it is not recommended; local laws may also prohibit feeding birds. Otherwise, these are approachable birds and birders can easily get good views.
In the 1800s, egg poaching and plume hunting severely threatened these gulls, but today their numbers are strong and they are in no danger, though proper beach bird safety should always be observed near nesting gulls so as not to disturb brooding adults or harm chicks. Laughing gulls can occasionally be a threat to other nesting shorebirds, since they are opportunistic feeders and will eat eggs or chicks.