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Mew Gull

These birds are more commonly known as Common Gulls.

The Mew Gull is a small gull of western North America that occasionally turns up as a vagrant much farther east. Mews Gulls typically nest in colonies about 3 meters apart, and at least some pairs remain together for subsequent breeding seasons.

The age of first breeding for males is typically two or three years, and for females it is three or four years. In other parts of the world Mew Gulls show a strong tendency to return to breeding areas in subsequent years, although this has not been studied in North America. Mew Gulls are known to have lived 25 years in the wild.


Description of the Mew Gull


Mew Gull

Photograph © Glenn Bartley

The Mew Gull is a small gull with gray upperparts, white underparts, a yellow bill, and black and white wingtips.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds have streaked heads.


Juveniles have grayish-brown upperparts and a dark-tipped bill, and gradually attain adult plumage over three years.


Coastal areas and lakes.

Mew Gull

Photograph © Glenn Bartley


Fish, insects, crustaceans, and refuse.


Forages by walking or swimming.


Breeds in western Canada and Alaska and winters along the Pacific coast.

Fun Facts

Adult Mew Gulls are dominant over young birds during the winter months.

Mew Gulls occasionally turn up on inland lakes as vagrants in winter.


A variety of “kew-kew” calls and screeches are given.


Similar Species


The nest is on the ground or in a tree.

Number: 3.
Color: Olive with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 23-28 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 35 days after hatching but remain with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Mew 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 Mew Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

LARUS CANUS (Linnaeus)
Contributed by Charles Wendell Townsend.HABITS

This gull, also called sea-mew or common gull, is a native of northern Europe and Asia, and is given a doubtful place in the Check List of the American Ornithologists’ Union by the statement that it is “accidental in Labrador”. In Birds of Labrador, by Townsend and Allen (1907), the whole matter was carefully investigated, and as no new light has been thrown, it seems worth while to quote the results here:

The following is from Audubon’s Labrador “Journal,” under date of June 18, 1833. “John & Co. found an island (near Little Mecattina) with upwards of 200 nests of the Larus canus, all with eggs, but not a young hatched. The nests were placed on the bare rock; formed of seaweed, about 6 Inches in diameter within and a foot without; some were much thicker and larger than others; in many instances only a foot apart, in others a greater distance was found. The eggs are much smaller than those of Larus marinus.” Elliott Coues adds the following note after Larus canus: “Common gull: This record raises an interesting question, which can hardly be settled satisfactorily. Larus canus, the common gull of Europe, is given by various authors In Audubon’s time, besides himself, as a bird of the Atlantic Coast of North America, from Labrador southward. But it is not known as such to ornithologists of the present day.” In his Notes on the ornithology of Labrador (in Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phila., 1861, p. 246) Dr. Cones gives L. delawareasis, the ring-billed gull, three specimens of which he procured at Henley Harbor, August 21, 1860. These were birds of the year, and one of them, afterwards sent to England, was identified by Mr. Howard Saunders as L. canns (P. Z. S., 1877, p. 178; Cat. B. Brit. Mus., XXV, 1896, p. 281). this would seem to bear out Audubon’s Journal; but the “common American gull” of his published works is the one he calls L. zonorhynchus (i. e., L. delawareais) ; and on page 155 of the Birds of Am., he gives the very incident here narrated in his journal as pertaining to the latter species. The probabilities are that, notwithstanding Dr. Coues’ finding of the supposed L. cc ens in Labrador, the whole Audubonian record really belongs to L. delawarensis.

The mew gull, although common during the migrations on the English coasts, does not breed south of the Scottish border, according to Saunders (18S9), who says that its trivial name, “common gull,” has led to many errors. In Scotland, the Hebrides, Orknevs, and Shetland it breeds in abundance, and a few breeding haunts are to be found in Ireland. It also breeds in Norway and Sweden and northern Russia and Siberia. In winter, according to Saunders (1889), “it occurs on the shores, lakes, and rivers of the rest of Europe down to the Mediterranean; also on the African side of the latter as far as the Suez Canal.”:

Nesting: This gull breeds in colonies on the shores of lakes or of the sea not far above the water. It is especially fond of grassy islands, and often makes its nest among the wrack thrown up on the shore. It has been found in Norway breeding on the shores of lakes 4,000 feet above the sea. Instances are on record where it has occupied the deserted nest of a crow in bushes or trees. The nest is generally rather large, and is made up of seaweed, grass, weed stalks, bits of heather, etc.

Eggs: Three eggs constitute a set. They are olive brown to straw color in color, or even pale blue or light green, spotted and streaked with brown and black. The average measurements are 2.25 by 1.50 inches.

Young: The downy young are of a yellowish gray color, lighter on the face, throat, and abdomen. The upper parts and throat are marked with large blackish spots. One of these spots always touches the base of the upper mandible.

Behavior: Saunders (1889) says:

As a rule this gull does not go far from land, and owing to its being one of the first to seek the shore on the approach of coarse weather, it has been made the subject of many rhymes and poetical allusions. It feeds on small fish, mollusks, crustaceans, etc., and may frequently be seen picking up grubs on the furrows In company with rooks, while it will sometimes eat grain.

Macgillivray (1852) says:

The fields having been cleared of their produce and partially plowed, to prepare them for another crop, the “sea mews,” deserting the coasts, appear In large flocks, which find subsistence In picking up the worms and larvae that have been exposed. These flocks may be met with here and there at long intervals in all the agricultural districts, not only In the neighborhood of the sea, but in the parts most remote from It. Although they are most numerous In stormy weather, it is not the tempest alone that Induces them to advance Inland; for in the finest days of winter and spring they attend upon the plow, or search the grass fields as assiduously as at any other time.

This gull also picks up floating offal from the surface of the water, and catches small fish, such as sand eels and young herring. From the beaches and rocks on the shore it picks up crustacea, mollusks, echinoderms, etc. In general habits it closely resembles the ringbilled gull. Its flight is light and buoyant and it dips down to the water gracefully, rarely if ever plunging below the surface. Its cry is shrill and somewhat harsh.

Breeding range: Nort bern Europe and Asia. East to northeastern Siberia (Gichiga and Marcova, Anadyr District) and Kamchatka. South to latitude 530 N. West to the British Isles. North to the Arctic coast of Europe and Asia.

Winter range: From the British Isles south to the Canary Islands, the Mediterranean Sea, northern Africa, the Nile Valley, and the Persian Gulf, and on the Asiatic side to Japan and China.

Casual records: IIas been taken once in North America (Henley Harbor, Labrador), a young bird of doubtful identity. Records from California refer to other species.

Egg dates: Great Britain: Twenty-two records, May 6 to July 18; eleven records, May 16 to June 1.

now a subspecies of Mew Gull


The North American counterpart of the common mew gull of Europe is so closely related to it that many ornithologists question the specific distinction of the two species. The characters on which they are separated are very slight and not very constant; there is so much individual variation in both forms that they seem to intergrade and may yet be proven to be no more than subspecies. The shortbilled gull is a widely distributed and common species throughout the whole of the interior of Alaska and the northern portions of the northwest territories. It is a marsh-loving species and frequents all the flat marshy country of the coast and interior, as well as much of the wooded region in the vicinity of lakes, ponds, and streams.

Spring: Mr. Lucien M. Turner (1886) says:

The short-billed gull arrives at St. Michael according to the openness of the season. It comes in few numbers as soon as large cracks are made in the Ice. This may be early as the 1st of May or as late as the 25th. The season of 1874 was unusually open. Upon our arrival at St. Michael, on May 25, hundreds of these gulls were flying over the bay. In the course of a few days they became less, so that by the middle of June only few pairs were seen. In later years they were not abundant at any time, though the breaking up of the ice was accompanied with visits of numbers of them.

Turner’s failure to note them after the middle of June was doubtless due to their being busy with family duties. Early in June they forsake the outer bays and scatter over the tundra where they construct their nests. Often their breeding places are several miles back from the coast, which they visit less frequently until after the young are on the wing.

Nesting: Mr. Hersey found a nest of this gull near St. Michael, Alaska, on June 19, 1915, containing an egg on the point of hatching and a young bird only a few hours’ old. The nest was on a small islet in a tundra pond; the islet was only a few yards long and about 2 feet above the level of the water. The nest was merely a hollow in the ground, about 8 inches in diameter and 3 1/2 inches deep, scantily lined with dry grass; it was located in the center and on the highest part of the islet. His notes say: When about one-eighth of a mile away one of the parents flew about above me screaming loudly. As I drew nearer tile bird came lower down and when within 75 yards of the nest she flew directly over It and hovered. While photographing it both birds darted repeatedly at my head, and when I finally left they followed me for half a mile.

Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1900) made some interesting observations on the nesting habits of this species on the Kowak delta, Alaska. He writes:

The lakes which the short-billed gulls mostly frequented were usually surrounded by spruce trees, which in the delta are more low and scrubby than farther In the Interior. I had in vain searched for the gulls’ nests on small bare Islets In the lakes and on grassy points, such as the gulls with which I was previously familiar would be likely to select for nesting sites. Although I failed to find any sign of nests, still the birds, by their uneasy actions, Intimated that there must be eggs or young somewhere. Finally on the 16th of June I determined to discover the secret, and, armed with patience, selected a secluded hiding place among some scrub spruces near a lake, yet where I had a good view of It. Two pairs of short-billed gulls kept flying about above me for a long time, occasionally alighting on the tops of the spruces surrounding the lake. I kept track of each of the four gulls as best I could, and finally saw one settle close down on the bushy top of a tree on the other side of the lake. Then it dawned on me that the nests might be in trees. I took my bearings on the tree, and started around the lake. Before I had nearly reached the vicinity I was met by the gulls, one of which began to dive at me again and again. It would fly high above me and then swoop down past my head with a shrill, startling scream. Just as the bird passed me It would void a limy mass of faeces, and with such disagreeable precision that I was soon streaked with white. On climbing the spruce, which was about 12 feet tall, I discovered the nest. It was almost completely hidden from below by the flat, bushy top of the spruce on which it was placed. The nest was a shapeless mass of slender twigs and hay, 9 inches across on top. There was scarcely any depression and I found the shells of two of the eggs broken on the ground beneath, probably pitched out by a severe wind of the day before. The single egg secured was considerably incubated. After I left the nest the gulls followed me a long ways, dashing down at me at Intervals as before described. I found several mere nests by carefully examining the bushy topped spruces around lakes, but none contained eggs. Probably the jaegers which I saw in the vicinity were responsible for this. One of the nests was only about 7 feet above the water on a leaning spruce at the edge of a pond. The rest of the nests were from 10 to 20 feet above the ground in spruces growing nearest the water’s edge.

Mr. Roderick McFarlane (1891), who collected many sets of eggs in the Anderson River region, says: Its nest Is usually a small cavity in the sand by the side of a stream or a sheet of water; but it also frequently builds on a stump or tree, and In such cases dry twigs, hay, and mosses, are used In Its construction. The parents do their utmost to drive away Intruders.

Eggs: The short-billed gull ordinarily lays three eggs, but often only two. They are ovate or short ovate in shape; usually the former. The ground color varies from ” Saccardo’s umber” or” Tsabella color” to “olive buff.” The eggs are spotted and blotched evenly or irregularly or in a wreath near the larger end, with the darker shades of brown, such as ” bone brown,” ” bister,” ” sepia,” or “snuff brown”; also with various shades of “brownish drab.” Sometimes the eggs are finely scrawled. The measurements of 40 eggs, in the United States National Museum average 57 by 41 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 63 by 41.5, 58.5 by 43, 50.5 by 40.5, and 51.5 by 37 millimeters.

Plumages: The young, when first hatched, is well covered with a warm coat of soft, thick down, “pale drab-gray” to “pale smokegray” on the upper parts, sides, and throat; “pale pinkish buff” on the breast and belly; and tinged with the latter color on the sides of the head and neck. The frontal and loral region is clear black. The sides of the head and neck are boldly and clearly spotted with black in a very distinct pattern, the spots coalescing into an indistinct Y on the crown; an irregular NV on the occiput; a large, distinct crescent on the cervix; and a small crescent on the throat. The remainder of the upper parts are heavily but less distinctly mottled with duller black, becoming grayer posteriorly. The under parts are unspotted.

I have not seen any specimens showing the development of the first plumage from the downy stage, but I have a good series of young birds collected in August. This plumage shows considerable individual variation, but is always more or less heavily mottled both above and below. Often the throat, and sometimes the belly, is nearly or quite immaculate white; sometimes the entire under parts, below the throat, as well as the neck and head, are uniform “drabgray,” or “vinaceous gray,” and always these parts are heavily clouded with these colors. The feathers of the back, scapulars, and wing-coverts are centrally dusky and broadly edged with pale-grayish buff; the primaries are uniformly dusky; the rectrices are basally gray, somewhat mottled, with nearly the terminal half dusky, and white-tipped. From this plumage the progress toward maturity begins early and continues all through the first year, by fading, wear, and molt. The “gull gray” of the mantle sometimes begins to appear in November. and by April or May this color predominates on the back. The white increases on the head and underparts, so that in the spring some individuals are largely white below; but in most cases the bellies are more or less clouded with dusky. The wings and tail also fade out to nearly white in the lighter areas.

A complete postnuptial molt produces the second winter plumage, which is worn for one year. This much resembles the adult plumage. The head and neck are heavily mottled with dusky in the fall, but become pure white by wear and molt during the winter and spring. The back is wholly “gull gray,” and the wings are largely so, but there is some dusky mottling on the bend of the wing. The tail is largely white, but there is a subterminal black band, varying in extent in different individuals. The primaries are brownish black, not deep black as in adults, with a large white spot near the tip of the outer and sometimes a smaller one on the second. At the second postnuptial molt, which is complete, the adult winter plumage is usually assumed at the age of about 2 years. This is the same as the adult nuptial plumage, except that the head is streaked, the throat is spotted, and the neck is clouded with dusky, all of which disappears at the partial prenuptial molt. The white spaces and gray wedges in the primaries are not always fully developed in third-year birds, but become more pronounced at succeeding molts. Other traces of immaturity are often retained during the third winter.

Food: Mr. Turner (1886) gives the following account of the feeding habits of the short-billed gull:

At Atkha Island, in the early part of August, 1879, a small species of fish (Melfetus viflosus) was thrown up by the waves onto the beach. These fish cast their spawn in the sand and is covered by the next wave. The gulls of this species follow the wake of these fishes, and during the spawning season devour many thousands of them. At Amchitka Island I observed this species frequenting the beach at low tide and securing the sea urchins, which occur plentifully. The birds seize the prey, carry it several yards into the air and then drop It on the rocks, or, us it frequently happens, into the little pools left by the receding tide. These pools are of variable depth, but when of not more than a few’ inches deep, the bird again took the object to drop it, perhaps Into the same place; evidently not with the intention of washing any objectionable matter from its surface, but simply from the fact that the bird had not yet learned to calculate the law of falling bodies, yet when the shellfish was dropped on the rocks and broken open the bird greedily devoured the Wellfleet ovaries. These gulls and the ravens frequently carry the shells far to the Inland and there break them open with their beaks. The old shells may be frequently found on a knoll of ground or tuft of grass.

Doctor Nelson (1887) says that ” along the coast of Bering Sea they feed upon sticklebacks and other small fry which abound in the sluggish streams and lakes.” Mr. E. A. Preble (1908) found that “three specimens collected May 12 had been feeding on water beetles (Dytiscus dauricus).” Mr. Hersey frequently saw them feeding on the garbage dumps near St. Michael. During the fall and winter they forage regularly with the larger gulls about the harbors and shores where garbage and other offal is to be found. Behavior:

In its flight and swimming habits the short-billed gull does not differ materially from the larger species. Mr. Hersey observed that the adults show considerable curiosity, following the intruder about over the tundra, and that the young are even tamer, circling about within 15 or 20 feet for several minutes at a time, turning the head from side to side and watching intently, but making no sound. Doctor Grinnell (1900) remarks:

Their usual notes are louder and sharper than those of the glaucous gulls and remind one of the bark of n terrier.

Doctor Nelson (1887) says:

They show considerable curiosity upon the appearance of an intruder, and very frequently follow one for some distance, uttering a sharp, querulous “kwew,” kwew.” When one or more are shot the others circle about a few times, but show very little solicitude over the fate of their companions. From the 18th to 25th of July most of the young are able to fly, and early In August old and young gather along the courses of streams or near the larger lakes. From this time on many of the birds are found also about low spits and mud flats along the coast. The young frequently follow boats for long distances on a stream or near shore, and they are so unsuspiclous that they may almost be knocked down with a paddle. The old birds pass through the fall moult the latter half of August, and by the middle of September they are in the new dress and gradually disappear from the north, until by the end of this month they become rare. In September they fraternize more commonly with the kittiwake than at any other season in the bays and along the coast.

Mr. Hersey’s notes however, state:

When the young are well grown and able to fly they join the flocks of glaucous gulls feeding about the bays and tide creeks. They appear to prefer the society of this species to that of their own kind, as I have repeatedly observed. Flocks of adult short-billed gulls have been met with continually without seeing any young, but practically every flock of glaucous will contain at least two young short bills. Generally two are found together, probably a family.

Winter: The fall migration carries the short-billed gulls down the Pacific coast to their winter range from Puget Sound to southern California, where they are fairly common all winter, associated with Pacific kittiwakes, glaucous-winged, western, herring, and Bonaparte’s gulls -a mixed party of seacoast scavengers. Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) gives the following account of this species on the coast of Washington in winter:

A certain childish innocence and simplicity appear to distinguish these birds from the more sophisticated herrings and glaucous-wings. They are the small fry of the great gull companies which throng our borders in winter, allowed to share, indeed, when Petro dumps a rich load of restaurant waste, but expected to take a grumbling back seat when the supply of food is more limited. One may see at a glance that they are not fitted for competition. Their bills are not only shorter, but much more delicately proportioned than those of the other gulls; while their gabbling, duck-like notes oppose a mild alto to the screams and high trumpetings of their larger congeners.

Gulls of this and allied species are quick to appreciate the advantages of protected areas. Along the water front or near steamers, where shooting would not be allowed, they become very bold. Short-bills, however, do not stand about on palings, piles, and roofs, as do the giaucous-wings, but rest, instead, almost exclusively on the water. Thus, if one attempts to bait the gulls with an offering of bread laid on the wharf rail, the larger gulls will begin to line the neighboring rails and posts, craning their necks hungrily or snatching exposed fragments; but the short-bills will settle upon the water and draw near to the piling below, content to catch such crumbs as fall from the high-set table.

Breeding range: Northwestern North America. East to Mackenzie Valley. South to northern Saskatchewan and Alberta (Athabasca Lake), northern British Columbia (Atlin Lake) and southern Alaska (Glacier Bay and Prince William Sound). West to the Bering Sea coast of Alaska (Nushagak and Norton Sound) and St. Lawrence Island. North to northern Alaska (Kowak River and Cape Lisburne), Herschel and Baillie Islands, and northern Mackenzie (Fort Anderson).

Winter range: Pacific coast of the United States from the southern end of Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound region southward to sauthern California (San Diego).

Spring migration: Northward along the coast and eastward to the interior. Early dates of arrival: British Columbia, Queen Charlotte Sound, April 6; Alaska, Admiralty Island, April 24, Mount McKinley, May 10, St. Michael, May 11, and Kowak River, May 15; Mackenzie, Fort Simpson, May 8, and Great Bear Lake, May 23.

Fall migration: The reverse of the spring. Early dates of arrival: British Columbia, Chillawack, August 26; Oregon, Scip, September 21; California, Berkeley, October 9, Monterey, October 29, Ventura, November 26 and San Diego, December 11. Late dates of departure: Alaska, Icy Cape, July 30, Cape Nome, August 28, Camden Bay, September 8, St. Michael, September 23, Unalaska, October 1, and Sitka region, October 7; Mackenzie, Lake Hardisty, August 25.

Casual records: Has been taken in Quebec City (Dionne),in Wyoming (Wind River Mountains, August 28, 1893), and in Kurile Islands (February).

Egg dates: Athabasca, Mackenzie region: Nineteen records, May 28 to July 5; ten records, June 15 to 21. Alaska: Thirteen records, May 30 to July 5; seven records, June 16 to 20.

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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