One of the most widespread, and perhaps the most familiar gull across much of North America, the Ring-billed Gull is of medium size, with a distinctive black ring on its bill for which it is named. Most Ring-billed Gulls are migratory, and travel during the day in flocks.
Nests may be only a few yards apart in Ring-billed Gull colonies, some of which can number up to 75,000 birds. A significant proportion of young gulls return to the same colony to breed in subsequent years. Some individual Ring-billed Gulls have lived about 30 years.
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Description of the Ring-billed Gull
The breeding adult Ring-billed Gull is a medium-sized gull with yellow legs, a pale gray mantle, white head and tail, mostly black primaries, and a yellow bill with a black ring. Sexes are similar.
Length: 18 in. Wingspan: 48 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter adults have brown mottling on the head.
Immatures resemble winter adults but have browner upperparts and a dark band on the end of the tail.
Ring-billed Gulls inhabit lakes, coasts, bays, landfills, and plowed fields.
Ring-billed Gulls eat a widely varied diet including insects, earthworms, fish, crustaceans, and garbage.
Ring-billed Gulls forage by picking up surface food from the ground or while swimming, or may steal food from other birds.
Ring-billed Gulls breed from central Canada south to the northern U.S. states, and winter broadly across eastern, southern, and western portions of the U.S., as well as points south. The population is probably increasing.
The Ring-billed Gull is often the most common gull, especially inland.
Ring-billed Gulls often congregate in large flocks, and patrol landfills and fast food restaurant parking lots for tidbits.
The typical call is a high, hoarse squeal.
- California Gulls are larger, with a longer bill and adults have both red and black markings on the bill.
The Ring-billed Gull’s nest is a cup of grasses, sticks, and moss, and placed on the ground near water.
Number: Usually lay 2-4 eggs.
Color: Gray or olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 23-28 days, but cannot fly until 5-6 weeks.
Bent Life History of the Ring-billed 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 Ring-billed Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LARUS DELAWARENSIS (Ord)
Audubon (1840) referred to this species as “The Common American Gull,” a title which would hardly be warranted to-day, although, with the possible exception of the herring gull, it is the most widely distributed and most universally common of any of the large gulls. In Audubon’s time it was probably more widely distributed and certainly more abundant in some localities than it is now; he refers to its breeding on “several islands between Boston and Eastport, another close to Grand Manan at the entrance of the Bay of Fundy, the great Gannet Rock of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and certain rocky isles in the deep bays on the coast of Labrador.” I have visited all of these localities without finding or hearing of any breeding colonies of ring-billed gulls, and I can not find anything in the published records to indicate that they have bred at any of these places in recent years, except a few shifting colonies near Cape Whittle in southern Labrador, found by Mr. M. Abbott Frazar (1887) in 1884, and one found by Dr. Charles NV. Townsend, referred to below. The ring-billed gull yields readily to persecution, is easily driven away from its breeding grounds, and seems to prefer to breed in remote unsettled regions, far from the haunts of man. It could never survive the egging depredations which the herring gull has withstood successfully; hence its breeding range has been gradually curtailed as the country has become settled. Although its former breeding range was nearly as extensive as that of the herring gull, it is now mainly restricted to the interior, in the lakes of the prairies and plains of the Northern States and Canada, where it far outnumbers the herring gull and is still the common gull. Here it is probably holding its own except where civilization is driving it out. In North Dakota in 1901, in Saskatchewan in 1905 and 1906, and in Manitoba in 1913 we saw it almost daily about nearly all the lakes we visited and we found numerous breeding colonies. Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) stated that they had become much more numerous in Minnesota through a gradual increase since 1857, being “extensively distributed over the lacustrine regions of the Commonwealth, breeding in all places adapted to their habits.”:
Courtship: According to Audubon (1840) mating takes place before the birds reach their breeding grounds. He says:
When spring has fairly commenced, our common gulls assemble in parties of hundreds, and alight on mud flats or sandy beaches, in out eastern estuaries and bays. For awhile they regularly resort to these places, which to the gulls are what the scratching or tooting grounds are to the pinnated grouse. The male gulls, however, although somewhat pugnacious, and not very inveterate In their quarrels, making up by clamor for the deficiency of prowess in their tournaments. The males bow to the females with swollen throats, and walk round them with many odd gesticulations. As soon as the birds are paired they give up their animosities, and for the rest of the season live together on the best terms. After a few weeks spent In these preparatory pleasures, the flocks take to wing, and betake themselves to their breeding places.
Nesting: My first experience with the nesting habits of the ring billed gull was on “the enchanted isles” of Stump Lake, North Dakota, three small islands in a western arm of the lake, now included in the Stump Lake Reservation. On May 31, 1901, and again on June 15, 1901, I visited these interesting islands, with Mr. Herbert K. Job (1898) who had previously described and named them. Two of the islands contained breeding colonies of ring-billed gulls, consisting of about 100 pairs each; one held a colony of about 75 pairs of double-crested cormorants; and one a large colony of common terns. All of them offered suitable nesting sites for various species of ducks, of which we found no less than 40 nests on June 15. Certainly the bird population of these little islands warranted Mr. Job’s title. The gulls’ nests were placed upon the ground along the upper edges of the beaches and among the rocks and boulders which were scattered all over the islands. They were made of dried grasses and weeds, sometimes of small sticks; were lined with finer grasses and were often decorated with feathers. On May 31 all the nests contained eggs, many of which had been incubated a week or 10 days; on June 15 not over one quarter of the eggs had hatched and many of them still held incomplete sets.
One of the most interesting gull colonies I have ever found was on a small island in Big Stick Lake, Saskatchewan, on June 14, 1906, where large numbers of this and the preceding species were breeding, together with a number of other water birds. I have already described this colony more fully in my account of the nesting habits of the California gull. The nests of the ring-billed gulls were on the higher portions of the island, somewhat apart from those of the larger species, but mingled with them to some extent. The nests were made of dead weeds, straws, rubbish, and feathers; they measured from 10 to 12 inches in diameter, and the inner cavity was about 9 inches across and 2 inches deep. Most of the nests were in open situations, but some were partially hidden among the rocks and low bushes. About half of the eggs had hatched, and the downy young were running about or hiding.
Ring-billed gulls were common at Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, in 1913. We saw them almost daily and examined several breeding colonies. They were on small rocky islets or reefs, where bowiders had been piled up a few feet above high water and a little soil had accumulated about them. On one very small reef, not over 25 yards long, I counted 10 nests of ring-billed gulls and 45 nests of double crested cormorants. The islet was thickly covered with nests of the common tern, of which I estimated that there were about a thousand pairs. Another thickly populated island, but slightly larger, was visited on June 19. It was similar to the other reefs – an accumulation of bowiders, with sandy or stony shores and some soil in the center, sparsely overgrown with nettles. A cloud of gulls and terns were hovering over it, which I estimated to contain about 100 pairs of ring-billed gulls and 500 pairs of common terns. There was also a small colony of double-crested cormorants nesting on the rocks at one end. The nests of the gulls and terns were closely intermingled, sometimes three or four nests within one square yard, showing that the two species were living in apparent harmony. The gulls’ nests were very poorly built affairs, the poorest I had ever seen, consisting in many cases of mere hollows lined with a few sticks and straws. Some of them were more elaborate and some were prettily decorated with feathers or lined with green weeds or leaves. Most of the nests contained three eggs, but many of them only two. No young were seen.
Audubon (1840) found them breeding on the Gannet Rock, early in June, “on the shelves toward the summit, along with the guillemots, while the kittiwakes had secured their nests far below.” This undoubtedly refers to Bird Rock in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where none of this species have been found breeding in recent years.
Dr. Charles W. Townsend writes me:
On July 16, 1915, I found a breeding colony of ring-billed gulls on Gull Island near Sealnet Point or Point au Maurler, on the Canadian Labrador coast. The Island is close to the shore, is composed of granitic rock with sparse vegetation of grass and low herbs, and is some 10 acres In extent. On the highest ground about 200 pairs of ring-billed gulls had their nests. These nests were composed of moss, sprigs of curlew-berry vine, dried grass, and dried-weed stalks. The nests were 12 Inches in outside diameter, 6 or 7 inside diameter, generally very thin, hut sometimes built up to a height of 3 or 4 Inches. They were placed on the hare rock or among the grass. A few herring gulls, elders, razor-billed auks, and black guiliemots were also nesting on the island.
Mr. William L. Finley (1907) describes a large colony of California and ring-billed gulls which he found breeding on a marshy island of floating tules in Klamath Lake, Oregon, which is a decided departure from their usual habit of nesting on solid ground.
Mr. George (i. Cantwell has sent me a photograph of a remarkable nest of a ring-billed gull which he found at Prince William Sound, Alaska, in June, 1912. His notes state that the nest was “made of usual material, but unique in the matter of situation, placed in the crown of a dwarf spruce, that grew to the height of about 4 feet above the surface of a small rock, upon which it had taken root. The rock set in an open bay of the salt water, about one-half a mile from shore. On other near-by islands a colony of Arctic terns were nesting, and on the bars of a stream on the near-by mainland other ring-billed gulls had nests. This was the only nest noted in the trees there, or on any other occasion.~~:
Eggs: The ring-billed gull normally raises but one brood, and the full set usually consists of three eggs; often only two eggs are laid, and sets of four are very rare. The eggs are subject to the usual variations in gulls’ eggs. In shape they are usually ovate or short ovate; the shell is smooth, thin, and almost lusterless. The ground color varies from ” Brussel’s brown or “snuff brown” to “pinkish buff” or ” cartridge buff in the commoner types of eggs ; in the greener types of eggs, which are rarer, the ground color varies from “deep olive buff” to “pale olive buff,” or in some cases to “yellowish glaucous,” which makes the egg look much greener than it really is. The prevailing types of eggs show the usual markings of gulls – eggs – spots and blotches of various sizes and shapes irregularly distributed; some eggs are finely speckled all over; in some the markings are confluent into a ring; and some are handsomely decorated with irregular scrawls, splashes, or blotches. Nearly all eggs show underlying spots or blotches of various shades of “quaker drab,” lavender or” mouse gray.” These markings are very faint in the lighter types. The heavier and darker markings are made up of various shades of brown, often several shades on the same egg overlapping each other as if superimposed; these vary from “blackish brown” or “fuscous black” to “burnt umber,” “russet,” or “Dresden brown.” Often the darkest markings are on the lightest colored eggs, making strong contrasts. The measurements of 40 eggs in the United States National Museum and the author’s collections average 59.3 by 42.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 64.5 by 42.5, 59.5 by 44.5, 54 by 40.5, and 60.5 by 40 millimeters.
Young: The period of incubation is about 21 days. The young remain in the nest for a few days, but soon learn to run about and hide among the rocks or under the vegetation near their nests. They learn to swim at an early age, and may often be seen swimming out from the shores of their island home when disturbed. They are carefully guarded by their anxious parents and driven back to dry land as soon as the dangerous intruder has departed. They seem to appreciate the value of their protective coloring, and will remain hid den until forced to run, when they become very lively. They are fed by their parents until able to fly and forage for themselves.
Plumages: The downy young have at least two distinct color phases, both of which are often found in the same nest. In the gray phase the upper parts are “smoke gray” or “pale smoke gray”; in the buffy phase the upper parts are “pinkish buff” or “vinaceous buff.” They are lighter below and almost white on the breast; they are distinctly spotted with “hair brown” or “sepia” on the head and neck, and more faintly mottled with the same color on the back.
The juvenal plumage is not fully acquired until the young bird is about fully grown, the down disappearing last on the chest and thighs. The upper parts are heavily and boldly mottled; each feather of the back, scapulars, lesser wing coverts, and tertials is centrally dusky. broadly tipped, and margined with “pinkish buff,” most conspicuously on the scapulars. The greater wing coverts are largely “gull gray,” becoming dusky near the tips, and some are tipped or edged with buffy. The primaries are mostly black, with narrow white tips; the tail is largely “gull gray,” somewhat mottled, and with a broad subterminal band of dusky, tipped with white or buffy white. The tail is never wholly dusky, as in the young California gull, a good diagnostic character. The under parts are largely white; the crown and breast are heavily mottled with dusky, and the sides are barred with the same. The bill is dusky, with the inner half of the lower mandible light yellowish.
Except for a molt of some of the body plumage, the first winter plumage is a continuation of the juvenal; the buffy edgings fade out to white and wear away: many new feathers, partially “gull gray” with dusky markings, come in on the back; and the dusky markings fade and wear away or are replaced by white on the breast and head during the winter. A partial prenuptial molt increases the amount of white on the head and under parts.
A complete postnuptial molt produces the second winter plumage, in which the back is mainly or wholly “gull gray,” the feathers narrowly edged with whitish, and the greater wing-coverts are largely the same; the lesser wing-coverts are still mottled with dusky; there is much dusky in the tertials and secondaries, and the primaries are plain brownish black. The tail is whiter basally, but has a broad subterminal dusky band. The head and neck are heavily streaked and spotted with dusky, but the under parts are mainly white. The inner half of the bill is yellowish and the outer half black. The partial prenuptial molt produces pure white under parts and nearly a pure white head, with a clear “gull gray” back.
At the next complete molt, the second postnuptial. when the bird is 2 years old, the fully adult plumage is perhaps assumed by some birds; but many, probably a decided majority, still retain signs of immaturity during the third year. The new primaries in such birds are black, but they have only a faint suggestion of the subterminal white spot on the outer primary or none at all; undoubtedly these spots increase in size with the successive molts. There is more or less dusky in the tertials, and the tail has the black subterminal band more or less clearly indicated. The remainder of the plumage and the bill is now like the adult. Such birds would become fully adult at the age of 3 years. I have one bird in my series which is quite heavily mottled with dusky on the breast, but is otherwise fully adult.
The complete postnuptial molt of both adults and young occurs mainly in August and September, but I have seen the molt beginning as early as June. The partial prenuptial molt, involving the contour feathers only, occurs mainly in March. The winter adult is similar to the spring adult, except for a few narrow streaks of dusky on the crown and hind neck; these are less in evidence in older birds.
Food: The feeding habits of this species make it as fully beneficial as any of the gulls. Throughout the agricultural regions of the western plains, where it is more abundant, it is often seen in the spring following the plow, picking up worms, grubs, grasshoppers, and other insects. It also does effective work by feeding on field mice and other small rodents. Dr. J. A. Allen, according to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1884), states in regard to their feeding habits in Salt Lake Valley:
At the period of his visit these birds spent much of their time on the sand bars of Weber River, and at certain hours of the day rose in the air to feast on the grasshoppers, on which they seemed at this time almost wholly to subsist. The stomachs of those gulls that were killed were not only filled with grasshoppers, but some birds had stuffed themselves so full that these could be seen when the birds opened their mouths. And it was a curious fact that the gulls captured the grasshoppers in the air and not by walking over the ground, as they have been said to do. Sailing around in broad circles, as though soaring merely for pleasure, the birds seized the flying grasshoppers as easily, if not as gracefully, as a swallow while in rapid flight secures its prey of smaller Insects.
I have seen ring-billed gulls hovering over a flock of feeding redbreasted mergansers and darting down at them as they rose to the surface. They were apparently trying to rob them of or make them drop some of the fish they had caught.
We found this and the foregoing species frequenting regularly the garbage dumps on the outskirts of the prairie towns and acting as scavengers along the shores of the lakes in Saskatchewan. On the seacoasts it does its part with other species in cleaning up the floating refuse in our harbors, and gathers in large numbers where garbage is regularly dumped, feasting on the miscellaneous diet it finds. It does considerable damage on its breeding grounds by destroying the eggs of other species associated with it. I have seen a party of ringbilled gulls break and suck nearly every egg in a colony of doublecrested cormorants when the latter had been kept off their nests for an hour or two; but I doubt if they would have dared to molest them if the cormorants had not been driven away by our presence. It occasionally robs the nests of the avocet, but it does not seem to molest the nests of the common tern, with which it is intimately associated; and I have never known of its disturbing any of the ducks which nest on its breeding grounds. Probably the terns are able to defend their eggs and the duck’s nests are too well hidden.
Behavior: The flight of the ring-billed gull is not markedly different from that of the other larger gulls; it is light and graceful as well as strong and long sustained. It can poise stationary in the air when facing a good breeze without moving its wings except to adjust them to the changing air currents, and can even sail along against the wind in the same manner. It is often so poised while looking for food on the water, but if the wind conditions are not favorable it is obliged to hover. When food is discovered it either plunges straight downward or floats down more slowly in a spiral curve, and picks up its food without wetting its plumage. ‘When alighting on the water its wings are held high above it as it drops lightly down with dangling feet. It swims gracefully and buoyantly, sitting lightly on the surface. It rises neatly from the water. It has no very distinctive field, marks and closely resembles several other species. but it is somewhat smaller than the California gull and very much smaller than the herring gull; it also has a lighter gray mantle and less white in its black wing tips. The black ring in its bill is not always in evidence and can not be seen at any distance. Its notes are similar to those of other closely related gulls, but they are on a higher key than those of the two larger species referred to above. When alarmed or when its breeding grounds are invaded it utters a shrill, piercing note of protest – kree, kreeee – like the cry of a hawk, but when its excitement has somewhat subsided this note is softened and modified and the subdued kow, kow icow notes are often heard from a flock of gulls floating overhead. It is often noisy while feeding, while a cloud of hovering gulls show their excitement by a chorus of loud squealing notes and shrill screams. While pursuing its ordinary vocations it is usually silent, except for an occasional soft, mellow kowk.
The ring-billed gull is a highly gregarious species, both on its breeding grounds and in its winter resorts, congregating in large flocks of its own species and associating with a variety of other species, with all of whom it seems to live in perfect harmony. Except for its cowardly, egg-robbing habits, it is a gentle and harmless creature. It seems to have no enemies from which it has much to fear except man. Its universal habit of nesting on islands saves it from the attacks of predatory animals.
Winter: During the winter months much of its time is spent at sea following the coastwise vessels in company with other gulls in search of such morsels as it may pick up, hovering in clouds about our harbors where garbage is dumped, or resting in large flocks on sand bars or mud flats at low tides a season of rest and recreation, with freedom to roam where it will.
Breeding range: Mainly in southern Canada. East to Hamilton Inlet and southern Labrador (Point au Maurier). South to northern New York (Adirondacks, casually), central Ontario (Muskoka Lake, Georgian Bay, etc.), Lakes Huron and Michigan (formerly), Wisconsin (Green Bay, formerly), northern North Dakota (Devil’s Lake region), and northern Utah (Great Salt Lake). West to central southern Oregon (Klamath Lakes) British Columbia (Shuswap Lake), and southern Alaska (Prince William Sound). North to central Mackenzie (Great Slave Lake), eastern Keewatin (north of Fort Churchill), and James Bay (Fort George).
Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservations: In Oregon, Malheur Lake; in North Dakota, Stump Lake.
Winter range: From Massachusetts (irregularly) southward along the Atlantic coast to Florida and Cuba; and along the Gulf Coast to Mexico (Tehuantepec); west to the Pacific coasts of Mexico and the United States, southward to Oaxaca, and northward to British Columbia; in the interior north to Colorado (Barr Lakes), more rarely Idaho (Fort Sherman), Montana (Lewiston), and the Great Lakes (Chicago and Detroit).
Spring migration: Northward along Atlantic coast and in the interior; northeastward from the Pacific coast. Early dates of arrival: Connecticut, Saybrook, March 8; Newfoundland, April 19; Missouri, St. Louis, March 7; Iowa, Keokuk, March 8, and Storm Lake, March 15: South Dakota. Sioux Falls, March 19, and Vermilion, March 31; North Dakota, Devils Lake, average April 16, earliest April 11; southern Manitoba, average April 25, earliest April 21; Mackenzie, Pelican River, May 9. Late dates of departure: Florida, Big Gasparilla Pass, May 22; North Carolina, Pea Island, May 10; New Jersey. Atlantic City, June 20; Texas, Corpus Christi, April 12; Louisiana, New Orleans, April 28; Missouri, Kansas City, May 3; Wisconsin, Madison, May 17.
Fall migration: Eastward, southward, and westward to the coasts. Early dates of arrival: Massachusetts, Chatham, September 7; South Carolina, Charleston, September 26; Florida, Fernandma, September 16; Mississippi, Bay St. Louis, October 10; California, Los Angeles County, September 17. Late dates of departure: Gulf of St. Lawrence, Anticosti Island, September 18; Massachusetts, Woods Hole, November 17; North Dakota, Harrisburg, October 17; Colorado, Denver, November 12; Utah, Provo, November 30.
Casual records: Accidental in Hawaiian Islands (one taken in winter 1901) and in Bermuda (January 1, 1849).
Egg dates: North Dakota: Forty-eight records, May 9 to June 22; twenty-four records, May 31 to June 15. Saskatchewan and Manitoba: Seventeen records, June 4 to 23. Quebec Labrador: Ten records, June 20 to 30.