The small, coastal breeding Laughing Gull has adapted to human encroachment, and often forages at landfills and airports. Laughing Gulls eat a wide variety of invertebrates, and are less likely than other gulls to eat the eggs and young of other birds.
Laughing Gulls are very social, and can be seen in flocks of hundreds to thousands. When nesting, they defend only a small area around their nest, and form large colonies. They will mob potential predators, but can become used to large gulls nearby as long as they are not actively seeking Laughing Gull eggs or young.
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Description of the Laughing Gull
The Laughing Gull is a slender, medium sized, vocal gull with a gray mantle and extensively black primaries. Narrow white eye crescents are present above and below each eye. Length: 16 in. Wingspan: 40 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Adults have black heads and red bills during the breeding season, while in the non breeding season they have white heads streaked or mottled with black, and black bills.
Juveniles and first winter birds are largely brownish above with a wide black terminal band on the tail.
Beaches, salt marshes, and bays.
Insects, crustaceans, and fish.
Walks, wades, or swims while foraging, and often steals fish from other birds such as pelicans.
Breeds along the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. Also occurs as far south as northern South America. Its population is stable to increasing.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Laughing Gull.
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.
- Adults, Franklin’s above, Nebraska, May; Laughing below, Maine, June
- Female (Franklin’s) juv, Washington, Sept.
- From below
Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History
Laughing Gulls are very coastal in occurrence, but do occasionally appear at inland locations.
They nest in colonies sometimes numbering tens of thousands of birds.
The name Laughing Gull refers to its strident, laughing calls.
- Franklin’s Gull
Franklin’s Gulls are very similar, but have less black and more white in the primaries, and broader white crescents around the eye.
Nests on the ground along a shoreline or coastal island, usually under grass or bushes, in a lined scrape or shallow cup of plant material or debris.
Number: Usually 3eggs, but sometimes 2-4.
Color: Pale buff or greenish with highly variable markings.
Incubation and fledging:
Young hatch at about 20 days and begin to wander from the nest within a few days, remaining with the adults until they can fly at about 35 days.
Bent Life History of the Laughing 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 Laughing Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LARU5 ATRICILLA (Linnaeus)
High above the gleaming sands of Muskeget Island, amid the whirling maze of hovering terns that swarm up into the blue ether until the uppermost are nearly lost to vision, may be seen some larger birds, conspicuous by their size, by their black heads and black-tipped wings, soaring at ease among their lesser companions. In the ceaseless din of strident cries may be heard occasionally the hoarse notes of this larger bird-notes which, from their peculiar character, give the bird the fitting name of laughing gull. Although larger and stronger than the terns the laughing gulls are much shyer and less aggressive on their breeding grounds; the observer must remain concealed for some time under a well-made blind before they will return to their nests in his vicinity.
The Muskeget Island colony is certainly the largest breeding colony of laughing gulls north of Virginia; it is therefore worthy of description, as typical of the numerous colonies which formerly existed all along the coast from Maine southward. Much has been written about this interesting island, and I have given a brief description of it under the head of the common tern. These gulls formerly bred here abundantly, but constant persecution reduced their numbers until they became very scarce about 1880, and would have been extirpated except for the protection afforded them by the passage of suitable laws and by the personal efforts of Mr. George H. Mackay in seeing that the laws were enforced. They increased slowly during the next 10 years, but after 1890 their increase was more encouraging. In 1894 the colony nearly doubled in numbers and it continued to flourish, increasing a little each year, until, at the time of my last visit (in 1919) it consisted of several thousand pairs.
Nesting: The laughing gulls usually arrive at Muskeget during the second week in May, the date of arrival varying from May 7 to 17, according to the weather conditions. A period of warm weather with strong southerly winds in the first part of May is likely to bring them early, flying high in the air with the terns. Mating and nest building soon begin and the first eggs are laid during the first or second week in June. They build their nests in a compact colony, among the sand dunes, near the center of the island, where the beach grass grows long and thick on the sandy slopes and in the hollows between the dunes. Usually the nests are, at least partially, concealed in the beach grass, which grows 2 feet high or more, but often they are in plain sight. When the nest is placed in the thick grass, a well trodden path over-arched with grass leads up to it on one side and away from it on the other, so that the bird may enter and leave the nest without turning around at the risk of ruffling its immaculate plumage. The nests are frequently placed among the beach peas, which grow in great profusion in the hollows among the sand dunes, or, again, they are found under bayberry bushes that are scattered all over the island-sometimes in the center of a clump. The nest is sometimes merely a hollow in the sand among the beach grass, lined with dry grasses, bits of sticks and rubbish; but usually it is a well made structure of various coarse, dry grasses, firmly interwoven and built up a few inches above the sand among clumps of beach grass, beach peas, or poison-ivy vines. The interior of the nest is carefully rounded and neatly lined with fine dry beach grass. By the middle of June most of the nests contain full sets of eggs, though egg laying is continued more or less all through the month. Very few chicks are hatched before July, but during the first week in that month the majority of the young birds appear and may be found hiding in the beach grass or running about so nimbly that it is difficult to catch them.
Similar colonies formerly existed along the Long Island coast, where in Giraud’s day the laughing gull was a common summer resident. It occurs there now chiefly as a migrant, and I doubt if there are any breeding colonies left. According to Mr. William Dutcher’s notes it bred at South Oyster Bay up to 1884, at Amityville until 1887, and at Cedar Island as late as 1888.
Dr. Witmer Stone (1908) says of its status in 1908 in New Jersey:
Formerly an abundant summer resident on the salt meadows along the coast, it Is now restricted to two colonies-one at Brigantins and the other on Gull Island, Hereford Inlet – both under the protection of the National Association of Audubon Societies. The birds arrive April 4 to 20, and have mostly departed by October 1. The first sets of eggs are laid in May.
On Cobb’s Island, Virginia, and on the surrounding islands we found the laughing gulls still abundant in 1907, though considerably reduced in numbers by many years of persecution. Their eggs were persistently collected daily by the oystermen all through the breeding season up to July 4, after which date they were protected by law and the birds were allowed to raise their broods. Such treatment must prove discouraging to the less vigorous birds and probably will eventually drive many of them away, but the oysterman claim the right to collect the eggs as a legitimate food supply, and it would be difficult to enforce any more stringent laws for their protection. The establishment of reservations under the constant guardianship of resident wardens is the only practical solution of the difficulty. Their favorite breeding grounds in this region are on the salt meadows, which are partially covered with shallow water at the highest tides. There are numerous small islands in this vicinity known as “marshes,” which form their principal breeding grounds. These are flat and muddy, only a foot or two above the ordinary high tides and covered with short salt meadow grass. The nests are well made, bulky structures of dead grasses and sedges, firmly interwoven and neatly lined with finer grasses. They are built up high enough to be above the reach of the spring tides.
The largest and most prosperous colonies of laughing gulls that I have ever seen were in the reservations off the coast of Louisiana, where, under rigid protection, the seabird colonies are still flourishing. Between June 16 and 24, 1910, I made the circuit of the islands with Warden W. M. Sprinkle, on his weekly patrol, visiting all of the more important colonies. The largest colony was on Battledore Island, where a resident warden was protecting the birds most successfully. I spent the whole of a long day on this little island and estimated that there were fully 5,000 pairs of laughing gulls breeding here, as well as 1,000 pair of black skimmers, 50 pairs of Lousiana herons, 30 pairs of Forster’s terns, 25 pairs of common terns, one pair each of Caspian and royal terns, and a few pairs of Florida redwings, all of which seemed to be living together in perfect harmony. The island was formerly much larger, but had been reduced in size by the washing away of its shelly and sandy beaches, leaving broad stretches of sand and mud flats around it, bare at low tide. We had to walk at least half a mile over these flats to reach the dry portion of the island, which was not over 4 acres in extent. In the center was a flat and almost dry marsh, largely overgrown with small black mangrove bushes, in which the Louisiana herons were nesting. Surrounding this, and partly inclosing a shallow muddy bay, were high ridges of finely broken oyster shells sloping down to the sandy beaches. The laughing gulls’ nests were thickly scattered over nearly all of the island, principally among the clumps of grass and coarse weeds or under small bushes, on and behind the shell ridges, but also on the marsh and on the muddy flats and sandy beaches, which were partially covered with grass and weeds. The nests on the dry ground or among thick vegetation were not so elaborately built as those on the open marsh. At this date (June 21) most of the eggs were heavily incubated, pipped, or hatched. According to Captain Sprinkle’s records the majority of the eggs are laid during the last week in May and hatched about three weeks later. The gulls on this island were particularly tame, being accustomed to the daily visits of the warden. They alighted on their nests readily within 10 feet of my blind, and even in the open, if I sat down quietly, they would soon settle on the ground within easy reach of my camera.
On the outermost island in this reservation, Grand Cochere, a low flat sand bar, we found a few pairs of laughing gulls with nests scattered over the island somewhat apart from the large breeding colonies of royal and Cabot’s terns, with which the island was chiefly populated. The nests were poorly made of the scant supply of grasses, seaweed, and rubbish available. As there was absolutely no vegetation on this bare sand bar, the nesting material must have been brought from a distance. In marked contrast to our experience elsewhere we found many broken eggs of the terns which had apparently been eaten by the gulls; we therefore thought it wise to discourage their nesting here and broke up all the nests we could find, about 10, and shot several of the birds.
Among the numerous small islands in the western part of the reservation, near the delta of the Mississippi River, we found a large number of breeding colonies of laughing gulls varying in size from 50 or 100 pairs up to 1,000 or 2,000 pairs. Some of the larger islands were of the same type as Battledore Island, but more of them were of the marshy type, locally known as “mud lumps,” overgrown with rank grasses, low mangrove bushes, and other vegetation. Wherever there were shell or sand beaches black skimmers were nesting. There were numerous breeding colonies of Louisiana and black-crowned night herons in the red mangrove thickets; a few colonies of Forster’s terns were breeding on the marshes; and there were a few scattering pairs of Caspian terns; but everywhere the laughing gulls predominated and apparently lived peacefully with their neighbors.
Eggs: Three eggs usually constitute the full set, though four eggs are frequently laid, and sometimes only two. Mr. George H. Mackay (1893) speaks of finding a number of nests with five eggs each, and suggests the possibility that these may have been laid by more than one bird. The eggs vary in shape from ovate, or slightly elongated ovate, to short ovate, the prevailing shape being typical ovate. The ground color varies from “Isabella color” or “wood brown” in the darkest specimens to “olive buff or cream buff ” in the lightest specimens, both of which extremes are unusual. The prevailing types show various intermediate shades of “olive buff” or “olive brown,” or, more rarely, a pale olive greenish tinge. I have one set in which the ground color is very pale ” pea green and is almost immaculate. The markings consist of spots and blotches, or more rarely irregular scrawls, scattered more or less evenly over the egg, but often more thickly about the large end. These vary in color from “seal brown” or “clove brown” to “Mars brown or “raw umber. In many specimens there are underlying spots or blotches of “drab gray” or “olive gray.” The measurements of 69 eggs in the United States National Museum collection average 53.5 by 38.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 62 by 37, 52 by 42, 48.5 by 37, and 52.5 by 30.5 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation is about 20 days. The young when first hatched are carefully brooded by their parents, who stand over them to protect them in wet weather or to shield them from the rays of the hot sun. They are fed at first on half-digested soft food, which they take from the open bill of the old bird, but later on are weaned and taught to feed on solid food. They remain in the nest for a few days, but soon learn to run about and hide in the grass or under herbage. For the next month or six weeks they lead an inactive life during the period of growth-feeding, resting and sleeping most of the time. They are fed by their parents until they are able to fly and for some little time thereafter. The flight stage is reached, on Muskeget, during the last week of July or the first week of August, at which time the adults, still in full nuptial plumage, may be seen hovering over the little grassy meadows, where young birds of various sizes may be found hidden in the long thick grass, so well concealed that one must be careful not to walk on them. Here they remain motionless until disturbed, often until touched, when they run nimbly or fly away. Comparatively few young birds may be seen exercising in the open sandy spaces or on the beaches, running about on their long legs almost as fast as a man can run, or learning to make short flights from the high spots.
Plumages: The young are thickly covered with long, soft down. The prevailing color above is ” wood brown~~ or ” drab,” which is often more or less extensively tinged with ” tawny olive ~ or ” cinnamon,’ and the under parts show paler shades of the same colors tinged with “tawny ochraceous” on the breast or throat. There is no white below. The head, neck, and throat are clearly spotted or striped with dull black, dusky, or very dark brown; and the back is more or less heavily mottled or clouded with the same dark colors.
The juvenal plumage is complete before the young bird is fully grown. In the fresh juvenal plumage the upper parts are largely dusky drab, but the feathers of the back, scapulars, and lesser wingcoverts are broadly tipped and margined with “cinnamon buff” or “pinkish buff.” The head, neck, and chest are heavily clouded with dusky, the sides of the head being nearly clear dusky, darkest on the lores, and the feathers of the neck and chest are narrowly tipped with pale buff. The throat is partially white, and the under parts are whitish, clouded with drab on the sides. The greater wingcoverts are dusky, broadly edged with gray, and white tipped. The remiges are black; the tertials and secondaries broadly and the inner primaries narrowly tipped with white. The tail is basally pearl gray, the outer third or more black, and is tipped with white. As the season advances buffy edgings on the upper parts wear away and fade out to whitish. A gradual postjuvenal molt also takes place during the fall and winter with the growth of new “gull gray” feathers in the back and new white feathers in the head, neck, and breast. This molt is practically continuous with the first prenuptial molt, which produces further advance toward maturity; the head becomes largely white, the under parts wholly so, the scapulars and lesser wing-coverts become ” gull gray,” and sometimes some, or even all, of the tail feathers are replaced by new pure white feathers; but usually the rectrices, the remiges, and the greater wingcoverts remain as in the juvenal plumage.
I can not find any evidence that the slate-colored head of the adult nuptial plumage is even partially assumed at this age.
At the first postnuptial molt, when the bird is a little over a year old, the adult winter plumage is assumed by a complete molt, but a few individuals may still retain traces of the black subterminal bar in the tail, or other signs of immaturity. In the adult winter plumage the dark hood of the adult nuptial plumage is replaced by a white head, mottled with dusky on the occiput, cervix, and auriculars; the inner primaries are conspicuously white tipped, decreasingly so outwards until the outer is entirely black; these white tips wear away during the winter. The complete postnuptial molt begins in July and is usually completed in September, but sometimes not until October; the outer primaries are the last feathers to be renewed. Apparently young birds molt earlier in the summer than adults, beginning sometimes as early as May. The partial prenuptial molt occurs mainly in March, and involves the contour feathers and the lesser wing-coverts. Dr. Elliot Coues (1877) gives a striking account of the changes which take place at this season: Another change heightens the beauty of the birds when they are to be decked for their nuptials in full attire. They gain a rich rosy tint over all the white plumage of the under part; then few birds are of more delicate hues than these. Nature blushes, filling the bird’s breast with amorous imagery, till the feathers catch a glow and reflect the blush. Burning with inward fire, the whole frame thrills with the enthusiasm of sexual vigor. The dark glittering eye is encircled with a fiery ring; now it flashes defiance at a rival, now tenderly melts at sight of his mate, soon to be sacrificed to masculine zeal. The breath of desire seems to influence the mouth till it shares the carmine hue that tinges other parts. The birds speed on high with vigorous pinion, making haste to the wedding with Joyful cries till the shores resound. But such ardor is too consuming to last; with the touch of a moment the life current flies like an electric shock, lighting a fire in another organism, only to be subdued in the travail of maternity; not only once, but often, till the tide ebbs that at its flood transfigured the bird. Its force all spent the change comes; the red mouth pales again; the glowing plumage fades to white; the bird is but the shadow of his former self, dull-colored, ragged, without ambition beyond the satisfaction of a gluttonous appetite. He loiters southward, recruiting an enervated frame with plenteous fare in this season of idleness, till the warm rays of another spring restore him.
Food: The food of the laughing gull is quite varied. It consists largely of small fish or fry which it catches for itself on the surface or steals from the brown pelican. This latter performance is quite interesting. Wherever a number of pelicans are diving and feeding these gulls are apt to gather in large numbers, and with their warning cries of “half, half, half,” to share in the feast. As soon as a pelican appears above the surface with a pouch full of small fry one or another of the gulls attempts and often succeeds in alighting on the pelican’s head and helping itself to the bountiful supply in the capacious pouch. Other gulls hover about and pick up the pieces that fall to the water. Audubon (1840) states that they eat the eggs and sometimes the small young of the noddies and sooty terns on the Dry Tortugas. I have seen some evidence of their egg-eating habits, but I think they are not nearly as bad in this respect as the larger gulls. Mr. Stanley C. Arthur writes me:
The laughing gull takes a heavy toll of the eggs of the Cabot and royal terns every year; of this there is no doubt; and it seems to favor the royal tern in this matter of egg breaking. While I have seen a number of Cabot tern eggs broken open by laughing gulls, there is no doubt that the royal tern suffers the most.
Mr. John G. Wells (1902) says:
As these gulls can not dive they have to depend for their food on the shoals of sprats and fry that come up to the surface, and they have been known to take large bites from the backs of a fish called corvally which swims near the surface in large numbers. After heavy fails of rain, when the pastures are covered with numerous rain pools, these gulls resort to them in numbers and feed on the earthworms which swarm in the pools. This may often be seen, especially In the Beausejour pasture.
Although not such scavengers as the larger gulls, the laughing gulls are not above eating quite a variety of garbage, and I have known them to follow our boat for long distances, while we were cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, to pick up the few scraps that were thrown overboard. Laughing gulls are frequently pursued by jaegers, and in tropical waters by man-o’-war birds, and after much darting, twisting, and turning they are finally forced to disgorge their food.
Behavior: The characteristic notes of the laughing gull have been well described by Mr. J. H. Langille (1884), from which I quote as follows:
From the hoarse clatter of the terns one could distinguish its long-drawn, clear note, on a high key, sounding not unlike the more excited call note of the domestic goose; and every no~v and then it would give its prolonged, weird laughter, which has given rise to its common name. To one who has heard it it might be imitated by the syllables, h.aha-a-La-haak-heh-kah, all of which are uttered on a high, clear tone, the last three or four syllables, and especially the last one, being drawn out with peculiar and prolonged effect; the whole sounding like the odd and excited laughter of an Indian squaw, and giving marked propriety to the name of the bird.
The flight of the laughing gull is light and graceful, yet strong and well-sustained. When migrating or flying long distances in pleasant weather, they usually fly high in the air, but in stormy weather or when flying against a strong wind they fly close to the water or low over the land. In pleasant weather large numbers of them leave their breeding places soon after sunrise, flying in flocks or long lines to their feeding grounds, and return before sunset, flying low in broadly extended formations.
The laughing gulls on Muskeget Island seem to live in perfect harmony with their neighbors, the common and roseate terns. I have never found any positive evidence of their eating the eggs of these terns, although they eat the eggs of other species elsewhere. They seem to be shyer or more timid here than at other places, and perhaps they have learned that it is not safe to molest the more aggressive terns. Mr. Mackay (1893) says:
I shall not call them courageous birds, as far as I have observed them, for I have frequently seen a single Sterna hirundo chase or put one to flight, which would endeavor to escape without offering any resistance. I have also seen four or five laughing gulls concertedly chase and put to flight a single Stersa hirundo, which offered no resistance to such odds.
These observations tend to show that the terns are the masters of the situation and that the gulls simply have to respect their rights. After the breeding season is over the old and young birds wander about our coasts until they finally disappear on their southward migration about October 1. Winter:
The fall migration begins in August, and by the end of September most of the laughing gulls have disappeared from the New England coast. Many linger on the North Carolina coast through November, and from South Carolina southward they are abundant all winter, frequenting the bays and tidal estuaries in large flocks. They are strictly maritime at all seasons and seldom wander inland or up the rivers beyond tidewater. Their winter range extends to the west coast of Mexico, Peru, and Brazil, where they associate with royal terns, brown pelicans, and man-o’-war birds on relations which are often more intimate than friendly.
Mr. G. K. Noble (1916) has recently called attention to the fact that the laughing gulls of the North American coasts are larger than those of the West Indies and has given the former a new name, Larus atricilla megaloptertts (Bruch).
Breeding range: Along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts (formerly at many localities now deserted) from central Maine (Lincoln County) to southern Texas (Cameron County). Principal colonies are in Massachusetts (Muskeget Island), Virginia (Northampton County), Louisiana (various islands), and Texas (Padre and Bird Islands). Birds breeding in the Bahamas and West Indies have been separated as a smaller subspecies, to which probably belong the birds breeding on the coastal islands of Venezuela and Honduras.
Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservations: In Florida, Passage Key; in Louisiana, Breton Island, and Shell Keys.
Winter range: From the Bahamas, coasts of South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana southward, mainly in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. It is impossible to separate the winter ranges of the two subspecies, but the species has been taken in winter as far south as Brazil (Cajutuba), and on the Pacific coast from central Mexico (Mazatlan) to Peru (Santa Lucia) and coast of Chile.
Spring migration: Migrants arrive in North Carolina in April and May; Virginia, about April 1; New Jersey, April 6 to May 1; Massachusetts, Muskeget Island, April 12.
Fall migration: L ate dates of departure: Massachusetts, Nantucket, October 8; New York, Long Island, October 28; New Jersey, September 20 to October 1; South Carolina, Weston, October 20.
Casual records: There are numerous inland records of stragglers, as far north as Quebec (Montreal, October 24, 1888), and Ontario (Toronto, May 23, 1890), and as far west as Iowa (Blencoe, October 10, 1894), Colorado (near Denver, December, 1889), and New Mexico (Fort Wingate). Accidental in Bermuda (winter of 1881ó82), Lower California (San Jose del Caro, September 6 and November 9, 1887), Great Britain (several old record), France (Le Crotay, June 29, 1877), and Austria (near Trieste, winter).
Egg dates: Virginia: Forty-eight records, May 25 to July 19; twenty-four records, June 9 to 26. Louisiana and Texas: Thirtythree records, April 8 to June 21; seventeen records, May 21 to June 4.