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Franklin’s Gull

Although smaller in size, this species is similar to Laughing Gulls.

The Franklin’s Gull nests on interior North American marshes rather than in coastal areas like many other gulls. It breeds in colonies that can number many thousands of birds. Sensitive to disturbance and drought, the breeding sites of Franklin’s Gulls can change from one year to the next.

At one time, spring flocks of migrating Franklin’s Gulls in Oklahoma numbered up to one million birds. The population status of Franklin’s Gulls is uncertain, but flocks of that size are no longer seen.


Description of the Franklin’s Gull


The Franklin’s Gull is a small gull with plumage that varies by season. Breeding adults have black heads with white arcs above and below each eye and a red bill. A white neck and underparts contrast with gray upperparts. In flight when seen from above, a white band separates the gray wings from black and white wingtips.  Length: 14 in.  Wingspan: 36 in.

Franklins Gull

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


The sexes are similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds have white foreheads and throats, and dark bills.


Immature birds are similar to winter adults.


Franklin’s Gulls inhabit prairie marshes, lakes, and oceans.


Franklin’s Gulls eat insects and fish.

Franklins Gull

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Franklin’s Gulls forage by walking, wading, or swimming.


Franklin’s Gulls breed in western Canada and the northern U.S. They winter mostly south of the equator. They can be seen in migration across much of the central U.S. The population is somewhat erratic based on water conditions, but appears to be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Franklin’s Gull.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

The Franklin’s Gull’s delicate build and buoyant flight led to its nickname of prairie dove.

Breeding adults often have a pinkish cast to the underparts, a surprising feature to those who have not seen it before.

The Franklin’s Gull is the only gull with two complete molts each year


The voice is often described as nasal laughing, but various calls are also given.


Similar Species

  • Laughing Gull
    The Laughing Gull is larger and has less white in the wingtips.


The Franklin’s Gull’s nest is a floating mass of vegetation.

Number: Usually lay 3 eggs.
Color: Buffy with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:

The young hatch at about 23-26 days, and leave the nest in about 20 days, though associating with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Franklin’s Gull

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Franklin’s Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

now Larus pipixcan

Spring: In late April or early May, when the rich black soil has thawed to the surface, the settler of the northwest prairies goes forth to plow. The warm season is short and his tillage vast, so he delays not for wind or storm. One day he is dark as a coal heaver, when the strong winds which sweep almost ceaselessly over the prairie hurl upon him avalanches of black dust. Next day, perchance, in a driving storm of wet snow, he turns black furrows in the interminable white expanse, his shaggy fur coat buttoned close around him. Then comes a day of warm sunshine, when, as he plows, he is followed by a troop of handsome birds which some might mistake for white doves. Without sign of fear they alight in the furrow close behind him, and, with graceful carriage, hurry about to pick up the worms and grubs which the plow has just unearthed. Often have I watched the plowman and his snowy retinue, and it appeals to me as one of the prettiest sights which the wide prairies can afford. No wonder that the lonely settler likes the dainty, familiar bird, and in friendly spirit calls it his “prairie pigeon” or “prairie dove.”:

The above quotation, from Mr. H. K. Job (1910), furnishes a vivid picture of this useful prairie bird and its arrival in the spring, which occurs at about the time that the last of the ice goes out of the lakes. The beautiful Franklin’s gull, or Franklin’s rosy gull, as it was first called, is both useful and ornamental throughout the whole summer, and is justly popular in consequence. Although it was described by Swainson and Richardson in Fauna Boreali-Americana, it seems to have been almost wholly unknown by the earlier writers on American birds, and was for many years considered a rare bird. It was not until the great western plains began to be settled and cultivated that we began to realize the astonishing abundance of this species and its importance to the agriculturist.

Nesting: A breeding colony of Franklin’s gulls is one of the most spectacular, most interesting, and most beautiful sights in the realm of North American ornithology. The man who has never seen one has something yet to live for – a sight which once seen is never to be forgotten. No written words can convey any adequate idea of the beautiful picture presented by countless thousands of exquisite birds, of such delicate hues and gentle habits, in all the activities of their closely populated communities. For parts of two seasons we had followed their elusive lines of flight over many miles of prairie and plain. We had seen them flying out in loose straggling flocks in the morning as they scattered over the prairies to feed and seen them flying back again at night to some mysterious point which we could never find; whence they came and whither they went we never knew, but somewhere in the great beyond we knew that they had established a populous city. Like the Indians of the plains, they are a wandering, nomadic race, and for some mysterious reason, unknown to any but themselves, they move about from place to place, choosing each season the locality which suits their fancy.

At last our efforts were rewarded on June 9, 1905, for after driving for miles over the rolling plains of southwestern Saskatchewan and exploring many lakes and sloughs in vain we discovered a splendid colony of these elusive birds. As we drove over the crest of a billowy ridge among roving bands of grazing cattle we saw a broad level grassy plain spread out before us, and beyond it in the distance a lake fringed with marshes. With the aid of our glasses we could barely make out a cloud of white specks hovering over the marsh, and we knew at once that we had won the long-sought prize. Another mile of rapid driving brought us to the marshy shore, where scores, yes hundreds, of the dainty birds began flying out to meet us with a chorus of shrill screams and harsh cries of protest. We tethered our horse and waded out into the marsh, where the reeds or bullrushes (Scirpus lacustris) grew for a distance of 200 or 300 yards out from the shore and for half or three quarters of a mile along that side of the lake. The water was not over knee-deep anywhere, except on the outer edge, and usually much less than that; perhaps a foot deep on the average. The reeds were 3 or 4 feet high and were not very thick except on the outer edge, where they grew in thick clusters, dense and tall. Most of the reeds were of last year’s growth, dead and more or less flattened down, with scattering tall, straight, green reeds growing up through them. As we waded out toward the colony, clouds of gulls began to rise and circle over us, cackling and screaming, but it was not until we were 100 yards from the shore that we began to find nests. When we were fairly in the midst of the colony the excitement grew intense; clouds and clouds of the beautiful birds were rising all around us, and the din of their voices was terrific, as they hovered over, circled around, and darted down at us in bewildering multitudes. If we kept still they would gradually settle down all around us, but if we gave a shout the result would be startling as the whole surrounding marsh would seem to rise in a dense white cloud, and the roar of their wings mingled with the grand chorus of cries would be almost deafening. But they were very tame and we had plenty of opportunities to admire the exquisite beauty of their plumage, seldom surpassed in any bird; pearl gray mantles, delicate rosy breasts, black heads, and claret-colored bills and feet. We could form no very definite idea of their numbers, but there were certainly a mighty host of them; to say that there were thousands would be putting it mildly, for their nests were as thick as they could be over a large area. Assuming that there were from 15 to 20 nests in an area 10 yards square, or in 100 square yards, which is certainly a conservative estimate, I figured that there were at least from 15,000 to 20,000 nests in the colony, meaning a population of from 30,000 to 40,000 birds.

As we stood wondering and admiring them, they grew more confident and gradually settled down on their nests all around us, and sometimes within 10 yards of us. They seemed less afraid of us than of the cameras, for they would not alight on their nests very near the latter. We got the best results with the Reflex cameras. They had many a little squabble among themselves; they seemed to be disputing the ownership of the nests, fighting over it in the air, or if one alighted on the wrong nest a quarrel would arise with the rightful owner; but as a rule each bird returned to its own nest with remarkable accuracy, and it is a wonder that mistakes were not more often made amid such a vast confusion of nests and birds. They frequently alighted in the little open pond holes among the reeds, where they floated lightly on the surface, swimming about in graceful elegance. Many of them alighted on the lake out beyond the reeds, where they swam about with the eared grebes, scaups, and canvasbacks. There was quite a large colony of the grebes nesting among the reeds with the gulls.

The gulls’ nests began about 100 yards from shore and extended uniformly over all the reedy area to the outer edge, where they were, if anything, more abundant than elsewhere. It seems as if a nest had been placed in every available spot, and it was difficult to walk without stepping on or overturning them. They were in the open places and in the thick places as well. The nests were generally large floating masses of dead reeds, but sometimes they were well built up among the green standing reeds and well secured. In the latter case the nests were smaller. They varied greatly in size and manner of construction. A few that I measured, representing a fair average, were from 12 to 30 inches in diameter, and were built up from 4 to 8 inches above the water; the inner cavity, which was but slightly hollowed, was usually about 5 inches across. The nests on the outer edge of the reeds seemed to have been occupied first, as it was here that we found most of the young. Practically all of the eggs collected here were heavly incubated, whereas in the nests farther inland we found many fresh eggs and incomplete sets, but no young. Three eggs were the usual number, though complete sets of two were very common. We found in all four sets of four, but in these some of the eggs were fresh and some heavily incubated, showing that they were probably laid by two birds. After collecting a few sets of eggs and exposing a lot of plates we reluctantly came away, not having fired a gun among the beautiful and confiding birds. We even refrained from killing one which had become tangled in the reeds and was easily caught. We visited this locality again the following year, but were disappointed to find it entirely abandoned by the gulls, which was probably due to the fact that the lake had been very dry earlier in the season when they were beginning to nest.

The colony described above was undoubtedly unusual, as this species generally nests in a more open marsh in deeper water and often in quite exposed situations in marshy lakes. In the three other colonies that I have seen the nests have been floating in water which was waist deep, or deeper, and many of the nests could not be reached without a boat. Dr. Thomas S. Roberts (1900) describes a typical deep-water colony in his account of the nesting habits of this species at Heron Lake, Minnesota, in 1899. He says: At a distance of about an eighth of a mile from the marshy, reed-grown shore, the little floating mounds dotted thickly a great crescent-shaped area some three-fourths of a mile in length by 300 or 400 yards In the widest part. The nests were irregularly distributed. In some places there were many close together, and again they were scattered yards apart, while now and then there were large spaces where there were none at all.

Under ordinary conditions the water over all this area would have been 2 or 3, nowhere over 4 feet deep, with a thick growth of bullrushes (Scirpus) standing well above the surface. But heavy rains had raised the lake until the water was in many places fully 6 feet deep and only the tops of the tallest rushes came into view; thus changing a large part of the nesting ground from a dense tangled bed of rushes Into almost open water. Upon this condition of things the birds, of course, had not reckoned when they chose the site, and In consequence many of the nests were now torn from their moorings, having been lifted by the rising water, and were unprotected save by the weak tops of the submerged rushes. Thus free to drift, they were floating hither and thither at the mercy of the winds, but, strange to say, this state of things did not appear to greatly disconcert the owners. Here and there a number of nests had caught against some firm anchorage, and, receiving new additions with each favorable breeze, a windrow, or island, of these stray nests was soon formed. Nest touching nest in this manner resulted in a promiscuous crowding of families that must have tested the good nature and forbearance of the occupants not a little, and probably led to some vagaries In the care of the young described further on. A few nests had gone adrift entirely, and floating far out into the open water had been abandoned. But luckily a considerable pert of the colony, wiser than their fellows, escaped this dire confusion of disaster as the result of having located their nests where shallower water and stronger growth of rushes provided protection and safe anchorage even when the flood was at its height. From nest-building operations still in progress at the late date of our visit (June 16) we Inferred that a few at least of the gulls that had lost their homes were reestablishing themselves In safer retreats farther back, having perhaps learned a lesson against future similar mishaps.

The nests were all built of the same material – old water-soaked bullrushes with sometimes a few fresh stems worked into the upper part. A heavy foundation of the thickest and longest rushes is first laid, forming a partly submerged platform held in place by the standing rushes about it, the whole being 2 to 3 feet across at the water line. Upon this the rather well made superstructure of finer material is constructed, with a long slope from the water’s edge up to the rim of the nest, which is raised 8 inches to a foot above the water. The cavity is 8 to 10 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 in. depth, and is rudely lined with bits of fine rush tops and coarse grass. The inside is always perfectly dry, being several inches above the water. The variation in the nests was not very great, being merely as to general bulk and height. Much of the material of which the nests were constructed had been carried from a distance, probably from the neighboring shore, where the rushes, loosened by the ice, had been cast up in heaps. The gulls carry with apparent ease these great heavy rushes, and were often to be seen flying about for a considerable time with the long stems dangling from their bills. The nests were kept In good repair, and as they became trampled down or the rim disarranged the owners were to be seen putting things to rights or adding a new rush here and there as it was needed. At the time of our visit many young were already out of the shell, but there were also many sets of eggs in all stages of incubation, the result probably of second nest building.

Eggs: As with most gulls the normal set of eggs is three; sets of four are rare, and often such sets are apparently the product of two birds; two eggs sometimes constitute a full set. The eggs show an interesting series of variations. In shape they are usually ovate, with some variation toward elliptical ovate. The shell is thin and almost lusterless. The ground color shows a great variety of buffy and greenish buffy shades, from “buffy brown~~ or “deep olive buff” to “cream buff,” and from “ecru olive” or “water green” to “vetiver green~~ or “pale olive buff.” Some eggs are sparingly spotted and others are quite heavily marked with large and small spots, blotches, or irregular scrawls, which sometimes are confluent into rings, of various shades of brown, such as “seal brown,” “sepia,” “bister,” “Vandyke brown,” and “burnt umber.” Some eggs have a few spots of “lilac gray.” The measurements of 48 eggs, in the United States National Museum collection, average 52 by 36 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 56.5 by 37, 53.5 by 38.5, 47.5 by 35.5 and 49.5 by 34 millimeters.

Young: I am inclined to think that both sexes incubate, for they are apparently affectionate and devoted to each other, both birds being often seen standing side by side on the nest. I believe that the male stands beside his sitting mate much of the time and relieves her by taking his turn on the nest. Dr. Roberts (1900) says that the period of incubation is “probably 18 or 20 days.” lie gives the following interesting account of the behavior of the young:

These pink-footed, pale-billed little halls of down now and then remain quiet]y In the home nest, basking in the warm sunshine, but more frequently they are no sooner dry from the egg than they start to wander. A few are content to go no farther than the broad sloping sides of the nest, and there they may be seen quietly dozing or tumbling about among the stems of the rushes as they explore the intricacies of their little Island. The greater number, however, put boldly out to sea and drift away with the chance breeze, their tiny paddles of little avail as they pursue their now enforced journey. A gust of wind a trifle harder than usual, or a bump against a floating reed stem, and over they go bottomside up, only to come quickly right again, dry and fluffy as ever. Having, after many failures, crawled over the tiny obstruction, they sail contentedly on. Now and then they get out to sea in earnest and disappear, and are probably lost in the rough waters of the open lake. Their departure from the nests was apparently ever against the will of the old birds, and many were the scoldings and severe the punishments meted out to these venturesome offspring. A glance in the direction of some local outburst of furious cries would reveal a bevy of gulls crowded close together, beating the air and the water over a particular spot, where on closer inspection might be seen one or more of these hapless truants. The frenzy of the old birds as the chicks neared the open lake was pitiful to behold. With might and main they endeavored to turn them back, seeming not to realize their utter Inability to stem the breeze even had they the Inclination to make the attempt. At last, their protests of no avail, a resort is had to still more vigorous measures, and seizing the drifting chicks by the nape of the neck with the powerful beak they are Jerked bodily and roughly out of the water, and from a height of 3 or 4 feet thrown as far as possible in the desired direction. This being repeated time and again – often several 01(1 birds taking part in the performance – until the youngsters are at last flung Into some nest, exhausted and bleeding from the blows and pinches inflicted by the sharp bills of the parent birds. This strange spectacle was of common occurrence, and these vigorous nursery duties seemed to occupy much of the attention of a goodly part of the members of this colony. Probably under ordinary conditions of water and protection such disturbances are less frequent. So far as the disciplining and care of the young went there existed a curious spirit of communisms among these gulls. An old gull cared for whatever young gulls fell in its way, and when the stray chicks chanced to clamber up into a strange nest, against which they happened to drift, they were, after a few admonishing squawks, welcomed as one of the household, and scolded, pecked, and fed just as though the foster parent had laid the eggs from which they were hatched. Now and then an entire brood would escape in a body, and crawling up beside some incubating bird on a neighboring windward nest would cuddle close about the old bird, who, to all appearances, was perfectly willing to adopt them in advance of the appearance of her own infants.

Occasionally we saw old gulls already in possession of a family twice the size to which they were entitled, rushing out and pouncing upon other fresh arrivals, who were quickly hustled and jerked up among the others until not infrequently 10 or a dozen of these tiny balls filled the nest to overflowing, and in the diversity of coloration presented plainly Indicated their varied parentage.

Most jealously were these foundling asylums watched over and many were the fierce encounters in midair that resulted when some marauding band dared to Interfere. A single gull, aided it might be by some accepted neighbor, fed apparently without distinction all these youngsters, and time and again we saw some little chap, just fished out of the water and still sore from the rough usage to which he had been subjected, fed to repletion by his captor, who disgorged into the tiny maw a juicy mass of dragon-fly nymphs brought from the meadows a mile away.

Plumages: The downy young exhibit two color phases, with considerable variation in each. In the brown phase the upper parts are “wood brown” anteriorly, becoming “Isabella color” posteriorly; the throat and chest are “ochraceous buff,” shading off to white on the belly. The back is heavily spotted or variegated with dusky, and the head is mottled with the same; there is a frontal black space at the base of the bill and usually a few dusky spots on the throat. In the gray phase the buff and brown tints are entirely replaced by light shades of “neutral gray~~ or “mouse gray,” darker above and lighter below, the dusky markings on the upper parts being as described above.

The juvenal, or first plumage is acquired during July, previous to the flight stage. The back, scapulars, and lesser wing-coverts are “hair brown” and “drab”; the feathers edged with “wood brown;” the greater wing-coverts are gray; the primaries are dusky black tipped with white; the secondaries are centrally black, basally gray, broadly tipped, and edged with white; the tertials are dusky, broadly edged with white; the head is mottled with dusky and whitish above, white below, with a black crescentic spot in front of the eye and a white spot below it, the upper tail-coverts are white; the tail is light gray, with a broad subterminal band of dusky; the under parts are pure white, or rarely tinged with rosy.

The postjuvenal molt begins early in September and by November or December the first winter plumage is fully acquired by a partial molt, which involves everything but the wings and tail. The forehead is now largely white and the under parts are entirely so. The crown and occiput are mottled with dusky, the markings coalescing into a solid, slate-colored, nuchal collar, including the orbital and auricular regions; and the back is clear “gull-gray.” This plumage is worn all winter until a complete molt occurs in May or earlier, which is practically a prenuptial and a postnuptial molt combined. This is a very peculiar molt, for, so far as I know, no other gull molts its wings and tail so early in the spring. I have seen at least six birds with the primaries in full molt in May, and fully as many in fresh plumage that had completed the molt in June. Although the birds do not breed in this plumage, I suppose we may as well call it a first-nuptial plumage. It is characterized by a partial, black hood, the head being mottled black and white. There is much individual variation, but usually the black predominates above and the white below; the outer primary is black, with a broad whitish wedge extending more than halfway up the inner web. The black decreases on each succeeding primary inwardly until it nearly or quite disappears on the innermost, which is largely “gull-gray.” All the primaries are white-tipped; the tail is usually like the adult, but sometimes has a few dusky shaft streaks near the end. There is a slight roseate suffusion on the breast in this plumage. Perhaps the flight feathers are not molted again that year, but undoubtedly the plumage of the head is replaced by the winter plumage like that of the adult, and perhaps the wings may also be molted again during the late summer or fall. I have been unable to trace into subsequent plumages the peculiar wing acquired during the first spring, nor do I know when it is replaced.

The next step toward maturity we find in birds in both nuptial and winter plumages in which the plumage is fully adult except the primaries. This is undoubtedly the second year plumage, and the inference is that it is acquired at a complete postnuptial malt when the bird is a little over a year old, which means that the two complete molts are only about six months. apart. In this plumage the primaries are black for a distance of about 3 inches from the tip on the outer and for a decreasing distance on each succeeding primary. The tips of all the primaries are white, sometimes for an inch or so on the outer, and sometimes there is an indistinct white spot in the black of the outer primary. At each succeeding molt the black in the primaries decreases and the white increases until only a small black area remains on each primary. There is apparently much individual variation in the extent and rapidity of this change.

The complete postnuptial molt of adults occurs mainly in August and September, but it is often not completed until October. The outer primaries are the last to be renewed. Winter adults have the forehead, lores, and throat white, and the occiput, cervix, loral, and auricular regions densely mottled or washed with slate gray. The beautiful nuptial plumage is acquired by a partial or perhaps a complete prenuptial molt in April and May.

Food: The food and feeding habits of the Franklin’s gull demonstrate its value to the agricultural interests of the west, and prove that it is almost wholly, if not entirely, beneficial to mankind. During the nesting season, at least, its food is almost wholly insectivorous.

Doctor Roberts (1900) says of its food at this season:

The stomachs and gullets of several birds collected by the writer and kindly examined by Professor Real, of the biological Survey at Washington, contained a mass of insect debris to the exclusion of all else. One stomach alone furnished some 15 different species, among them several varieties injurious to the interests of man. The chief part of the food, however, during the time of our visit to the colony, and that on which the young were largely fed, was the nymphs of dragon flies, which were then to be found in immense numbers in the meadows near by. The writer counted no less than 827 of these insects in a single stomach.

Early in the spring, when the farmers are plowing, these gulls follow the plow in large numbers, contending with the blackbirds and other birds in picking up from the freshly turned furrows quantities of angleworms, cutworms, and other grubs and larvae. Later in the season they resort to the prairies and grass fields to feed on grasshoppers and locusts, many of which are caught on the wing. I have seen them hovering over the water in open sloughs and small ponds and daintily gathering bits of food from the surface which probably consisted of aquatic insects or their larvae, and possibly a few small fish. I have also seen them coursing low over the meadows like large swallows, catching mosquitos and other small insects in the air. I once saw a great cloud of them flying over a large marshy area in the interior of an island in Lake Winnipegosis. They were so thick and so much excited that I thought it must be a nesting colony, but on investigation I found that they were feeding on the swarms of gnats, flies, and other minute insects that were rising from the bushes in long swaying columns like clouds of smoke. The air was full of dragon flies which were preying on the same insects, and probably the gulls were feeding on them also.

Mr. John F. Ferry (1910) states that the stomachs of three birds taken in Saskatchewan contained remains of numerous midges and Acrididae, a spider, a small mole cricket, a water beetle, and several large dragon-flies.

Behavior: In flight the Franklin’s gull is as light and graceful as at other times. When traveling long distances, as it does regularly, to and from its feeding grounds, it proceeds rather swiftly, with constant flappings in widely scattered and open flocks at a moderate height. When rising from or alighting on the water or ground its feet are allowed to dangle, but ordinarily they are stretched out behind and partly or wholly concealed under the feathers. At times small parties indulge in aerial exercise or sport by soaring upward in spiral curves, sailing on outstretched, motionless wings, mounting higher and higher, until almost lost to sight. Large numbers gather regularly at certain spots apparently for the sole purpose of performing these aerial evolutions, and after an hour or so of such exercise they suddenly disappear, as mysteriously as they came, drifting aimlessly about in roving bands. If one of their number is shot they gather immediately into a dense, hovering screaming flock, darting down toward their fallen companion, but if no more are killed they soon lose interest and silently drift away.

The Franklin’s gull swims with exquisite grace and buoyancy, floating lightly on the surface. About its breeding grounds it is very tame and many a beautiful picture is seen of a party of these lovely birds, resting on the placid water of some small marshy pool, the delicate colors of their spotless plumage clearly reflected in its glassy surface and offset by a background of dark green reeds.

My field notes describe the ordinary note of this gull as a soft “Krrruk” or a low clucking call. This is sometimes varied with a louder and more plaintive cry, sounding like “pway” or “pwa-ay,” which is rather musical; and when much excited or alarmed, as on their breeding grounds, it utters loud, shrill, piercing screams. Mr. Thomas Miller, in a letter to Major Bendire, described its notes as follows:

While feeding, their call is a shrill “Kuk Kuk Kuk Kuk ” repeated Incessantly, varied at times with their characteristic “Weeh-a Weeh-a,” the first syllable prolonged and uttered with the rising inflection. This is the call most commonly heard, and while flying home from feeding about the only one they use. In visiting the breeding place they hover over you and repeat this call with a mournful cadence, as if imploring you not to molest their nests. Then their cries are incessant and can be heard a long way off. On bright sunny days in May and June they soar In the air to a great height, so high as to be scarcely visible, when they swoop back and forth crying “Weeh-a Weeh-a Weeh-a Po-lee Po-lee Po-lee Po-lee.” The last notes are invariably uttered shorter and quicker than the first. They will fly thus all day long and the note “Po-lee Po-lee” is only heard when they are soaring at a great height during fine weather. This note is not unlike that heard on the Scottish moorlands while the whaup or sickle bill curlew is circling around the lonely traveler.

Mr. J. W. Preston (1880) says that “at intervals they utter a shill, clear cry much resembling the call of the marbled godwit. Their ordinary note is a loud, mewing cry, uttered in a short, jerky, impatient manner, somewhat resembling the mewing of a cat. This call is constantly kept up, and when they congregate at their rookery in the evening the din is deafening, and may be heard all night during the mating season, which begins about May 1 and lasts until the 15th of the month. Regularly at dark a large portion of the flock took their noisy way to the open lake, where they remained on the water until light.”:

Franklin’s gulls are not only highly gregarious among themselves, nesting in compact colonies of immense numbers, but they are decidedly sociable toward other species, especially on their breeding grounds. In the sloughs where they breed they have for intimate neighbors large numbers of yellow-headed blackbirds, black terns, coots, rails, grebes, canvasbacks, redheads, and ruddy ducks, with all of whom they seem to be on good terms. They seem to be particularly intimately associated with eared grebes. There is almost always a colony of these grebes in or near every Franklin’s gull colony, and often the nests of the two species are closely intermingled. Mr. Herbert K. Job has a photograph of a Franklin’s gull eating the eggs in an eared grebe’s nest, but I doubt if they regularly disturb the nests of their neighbors to any great extent, although nest-robbing is a trait peculiar to almost all gulls. Mr. Preston (1886) says of their behavior:

While defending their nests they evince great courage and spirit, successfully routing the Canada goose (Bernicla canadensa), white pelican (Pelecanus erijthrorhvnchus), and other large birds which chanced to molest them. A most distressing sight was the determined but unsuccessful attempt of a dozen frightened gulls to chase a large snapping turtle from a nest on which it had killed the mother bird and was leisurely devouring her eggs. When I approached the nest the owners, with a few others, hovered about crying piteously, almost striking me with their wings.

Fall: After the breeding season is over these gulls gather into immense flocks and wander about in search of suitable feeding grounds, where they must prove of great benefit in destroying vast hordes of injurious insects, such as locusts and grasshoppers, which are swarming on the prairies during the latter half of the summer. Mr. George Atkinson, according to Macoun (1909), says of their abundance at that season:

While driving into the Eagle hills, about 40 miles west of Saskatoon, on July 80, 1906, we passed an extensive mud flat and salty slough, on which rested between four and five solid acres of gulls. I fired a shot into the air to note the effect and they rose as one bird in such a cloud that their wings clashed together in a frantic flapping and their discordant cries were almost deafening. It would be entirely impossible to estimate the number of birds in this flock.

Dr. Thomas S. Roberts has sent me the following interesting extracts from his field notes on the behavior of Franklin’s gulls in the great autumnal gatherings of this species in Minnesota:

Immense numbers of these gulls spend the nights out in the open lake, congregating to form one or two or sometimes three flocks, 600 or 800 feet long and 200 or 300 feet wide. The gulls sit close on the water, so that from a distance they look like vast “banks” of ducks, except when the sun strikes them just right, then they show white. During the day the gulls feed on the fields and prairies at some distance from the lake, returning toward evening in various sized flocks and assembling out in the lake for the night. About sunrise in the morning they begin to stir, and for a time there Is great commotion among them. Soon they get up in a body and the air is filled with them. As the slanting sun strikes their snowy bodies and slowly moving wings it is a curious and beautiful sight, appearing as though the air were filled with huge snowflakes or eddying bits of silver tinsel. Rising to some distance above the water they start for their feeding grounds in a great straggling company, the head of the flock soon becoming V-shaped as geese fly. Later they break up into numerous smaller flocks, each flying in more or less perfect V-shaped formation. They return at night in the same way or in broad straight-fronted flocks, and when the light makes them appear dark the inexperienced sportsman is apt to think a tempting flock of small geese is approaching. They fly too slowly for ducks.

On October 4 at 5 p. m. the gulls came from the north at a great height, circling around against the blue sky, appearing like shining white specks as the sun struck their white bodies. The wings were invisible, but their movements caused a flickering or twinkling, causing the gulls to look like stars in the deep blue sky; as they darted about or dropped suddenly the effect was that of shooting stars. I lay on soy back on the bank for some time watching them. As they reached a point over the lake they descended by a series of sudden downward shoots or more frequently by a gentle spiral.

From the southeast the gulls came in immense flocks, low down, larger than I have seen before. At times the stream seemed to extend for what appeared about a mile and was at places dense and broad, at others thin. But the number of gulls was something beyond calculation; it reminded one of the way wild pigeons used to fly. As they approached the water they dropped near the surface and swept up the lake in great clouds to jola the great concourse already assembled. This flight of gulls is something that never ceases to interest me; they are In such vast numbers, so regular in their habits, and so beautiful.

October 5. The gulls left the lake this morning going northward between 9 and 10. Many flew out in flocks directly, but I noticed a new performance. Over the lake a hundred or more gulls would get together and begin to fly about rapidly in a circle, and, others joining them, there was soon formed a great whirling mass of gulls, the birds moving in all directions within the globe, but turning about when reaching its limits. It was a curious sight, especially as at times five or six of these great whirligigs would be In view at the same time. It was a great game and presented a spectacle of perfect abandon. Fresh flocks encountering one of these merry-go-rounds either passed directly through it or more often joined at once In the sport. Round and round and up and down they went, forming a great whirling mass, which, as a whole, wound slowly onward away from the lake. Sometimes two of these eddying groups encountered each other, and then they merged to form a single one. They broke up finally by the gulls that tired first steering away in the direction of the flight until all had gone. I lay beside a haystack in the warm sun for an hour watching this gull play. The masses formed directly in front of me and passed over and by me at a height of 75 to 100 feet. It reminded me most of the revolving balls of gnats or other insects one sometimes sees on still evenings. The morning was clear, warm, and only a moderate breeze blowing from the north.

Breeding range: Prairie regions of the northern interior. East to central Manitoba (Shoal Lake) and western Minnesota (Becker and Jackson Counties, Heron Lake). South to northwestern Iowa (Dickinson County, formerly), northeastern South Dakota (Brookings, Clark, and Marshall Counties), southwestern Saskatchewan (Crane Lake region), and northern Utah (Bear River). West to southeastern Alberta (Many Island Lake). North to central Saskatchewan (south and east of the Saskatchewan River) and central Manitoba (Waterhen Lake).

Winter range: A few birds winter in the Gulf of Mexico from the coast of Louisiana to Panama, on the west coast of Mexico (Mazatlan) and Guatemala (Chiapam); but the main winter range is on the west coast of South America, from northern Peru (Payta) to Patagonia and southern Chile (Magellan).

Spring migration: Northward by the most direct route. Dates of arrival: Minnesota, Heron Lake, average April 4 and earliest March 27; Manitoba, Aweme, average April 25 and earliest April 8; Saskatchewan, Indian Head, average May 3 and earliest April 25. Transient dates: Missouri, April 20 to May 15; Kansas, April 10 to June 9; Iowa, April 6 to June 27. Late dates of departure: Peru, Callao Bay, April 11; Guatemala, Champerico, May 30; Texas, Kerrville, May 17 and Aransas Bay, June.

Fall migration: A reversal of the spring route, but more erratic. First arrivals reach Chile, Valparaiso, in September. Late dates of departure; Minnesota, Madison, October 8; Iowa, November 6; Nebraska, Lincoln, November 17; Texas, Brownsville, November 10.

Casual records: Has wandered on migrations to Hudson Bay (specimen in British Museum from Hayes River); Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, October 22, 1911); Virginia (Blacksburg, October 24, 1898); the West Indies (St. Bartholomew Island); California (Hyperion, October 17 and November 24, 1914); and many other inland localities. Accidental in Hawaiian Islands (Mauai, winter).

Egg dates: Minnesota and North Dakota: Forty-two records, May 3 to June 26; twenty-one records, May 18 to June 4. Manitoba and Saskatchewan: Twenty-one records, June 5 to 16; eleven records, June 6 to 11.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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