The Western Gull is a member of the group of gulls sometimes described as large white-headed gulls. Western Gulls defend territories, but these consist of only a small area around the nest, as this species nests colonially. Males do most of the territory defense, but if the male is away the female will take over.
Occasionally, a chick from one nest will wander to the nest of another pair and be adopted. Western Gulls typically live for ten to fifteen years, but have lived to be 25 years old. Collisions in high winds can lead to serious injuries, and entanglement in fishing lines or nets kills many birds as well.
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Description of the Western Gull
The Western Gull is a large gull with plumage that varies somewhat by age and by season. Breeding adults have white heads and a yellow bill with a red spot near the tip. A white foreneck neck and underparts contrast with gray upperparts. In flight, the primaries are extensively black with small white tips. The legs are pink.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter adults have brown streaking on the head and nape.
Immature birds are mostly brown, with a mostly dark bill. They attain adult plumage by age four.
Western Gulls inhabit coastal areas.
Western Gulls eat fish, garbage, clams, crabs, and eggs.
Western Gulls forage by walking or swimming, and sometimes by plunging into the water.
Western Gulls are resident along the Pacific Coast. The population appears to be stable.
There are two subspecies of Western Gulls, with the dividing line located near Monterey, California.
The Western Gull is the only gull species to nest virtually all along the Pacific Coast.
The voice is a fast bugle.
- The Yellow-footed Gull has yellow legs.
The Western Gull’s nest is a depression lined with plants. It is placed on the ground, on a cliff ledge, or building.
Number: Usually lay 3 eggs.
Color: Brownish or olive with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 29-32 days, and leave the nest within a few days, though they cannot fly for about 45 days and they associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Western 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 Western Gull – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LAIRUS OCCIDENTALIS (Audubon)
Along the numerous beaches of the California coast the dark-mantled western gull is the most conspicuous and the most universally abundant sea bird throughout the whole year, everywhere much in evidence and everywhere tame and familiar – a welcome visitor as a useful scavenger and a pretty feature in the seashore scenery. The immaculate purity of its snow-white plumage is kept spotlessly clean, in spite of its untidy feeding habits. As we see these beautiful black and white birds sailing along the ocean cliffs they seem to reflect the clear freshness of the beach and sea and sky; and as we see them walking daintily on their long legs over the clean sand it seems incongruous to associate them with the struggling screaming mob of hungry birds that we have just seen fighting for and gorging themselves on the refuse from the sewers or the garbage dumps.
During my stay at Redondo Beach, in June, I spent considerable time watching these interesting and familiar birds. There were always plenty of them to be seen flying along the beach or resting in groups on the fiat, smooth sand, adults and young in several different stages of plumage, and generally a few Heermann’s gulls were mingled with them. It was in the height of the breeding season and I wondered whether the adults had nests on the islands off the coast or were birds that were not breeding that season. Some of them were standing on one leg, with bills tucked under their scapulars, sound asleep; but more of them were resting on their breasts. One old male seemed to be the boss of the beach and acted as a disturber of the peace by walking around, driving off the Hermann’s gulls and waking up all the gulls that were asleep, making them move on, as a policeman does with loafers on a sidewalk. One was seen playing with a feather, picking it up, letting it blow away and running after it again, as if he enjoyed the fun. Occasionally one would walk down to the surf line to pick up a morsel of food, to drink or to bathe, and return to dry land to preen its feathers. They were tamer than any large gulls I had ever seen. I had no difficulty in shooting them, picking out the exact plumage that I wanted to complete my series. As soon as one was shot a flock gathered about me, hovering over my head with intimate curiosity; and while walking along the beach with dead gulls in my hand there were always several following me, close at hand. Even about the much-frequented wharves they were very unsuspicious, standing on the posts and railings within 10 or 15 feet of numerous human beings, in whom they justly had perfect confidence, for they are never molested. About the fish houses, where men were cleaning fish, they were particularly familiar, standing in rows along the roofs, or on the stringers waiting for the offal to be thrown into the water. No one seemed to notice them at all, but to me it was a novel and interesting sight. There was a time when persistent egging on the Farallones was reducing the population of western gulls, but since that has been stopped they are increasing again. They are probably not much disturbed on their breeding grounds and are generally protected. Hence they have become familiar and useful birds on the coast, but they are more of a nuisance than ever on the islands where they do so much damage to other species.
Spring: As this gull is practically a. resident throughout its range, it has no well-marked migration. The spring migration merely amounts to a concentration on its breeding grounds or a withdrawal, and only a partial one at that, from its somewhat wider winter range. In the southern portion of its breeding range in Lower California this occurs early in March, in southern California in April, and correspondingly later farther north. It retreats in the spring from the Puget Sound region to the northern limit of its breeding range in the bird reservations on the coast of Washington, where it mingles with the glaucous-winged gull at the southern limit of the latter’s breeding range.
Nesting: Dawson (1909) says that the northernmost colony of unmixed occidentalis on the Washington coast is on Willoughby Rock, off Cape Elizabeth; “but scattered pairs occur, along with glaucous wings, as far up as Carroll Islet.” He says of its nesting habits:
Nesting is undertaken in May, and by the 20th of that month, or by June 10 at the latest, the complement of three eggs is laid. Nests are composed almost exclusively of dried grasses plucked by the birds, roots and all; and these become quite substantial structures if the grass is convenient. Ledges, crannies, grassy hill sides, and the exposed summits of the rocks are alike utilized for nesting sites; while occasionally a bird ventures down so close to the tide line as to lose her eggs in time of storm. Chicks are brought off by the third week In June or by the 1st of July, according to season, if unmolested. If the first set is removed, however, the birds will prepare a second, consisting almost invariably of two eggs, and these are deposited as likely as not in the same nest as the former set. Deposition occurs at intervals of two or three days.
On the Three Arch Rocks, Oregon, Mr. W. L. Finley (1905) describes the nesting of this species as follows: The gull picks out a comfortable spot and builds a respectable nest, and that is about the only creditable thing he does on the rock. The grass-covered roof of the island is his favorite nesting place, although many select the niches in the bare rock on the face of the cliff. The gull’s eggs lie right out in the open and never seem to be bothered by other birds; they themselves do not ravage the homes of their own kindred. The eggs are of dull earthy and chocolatebrown tints, with darker blotches, matching their surroundings so perfectly that we had to be constantly on the lookout to keep from stepping on them. When the eggs were hatched we found the nestlings were protected by equally deceptive clothes of a mottled gray color.
The best known breeding grounds of the species are on the Faralion Islands, which have been well described by several writers. According to Mr. W. Otto Emerson, who sent some original notes on the subject to Major Bendire, the gulls begin building or repairing their old nests about May 1, and the nesting season is prolonged through May and June. The nests are built wholly of dry Farallon weed, Baeria maritima, the old nests being used year after year. After being robbed the birds soon begin laying again, and he noted, by watching a certain nest, that an egg was laid every other day.
Mr. Milton S. Ray (1904) has given us the following good account of the Farallon colonies:
While this bird builds in colonies, so to speak, they are not like those of the cormornnt or murre. There is always fighting room between the nests, and only the aggregations near Shell Bench, Indian Head, and at Guano Slope on West End, and about Tower Point on East End, could well deserve this term. Besides these places we found them breeding in scattered congregations all along the rocky terrace west of the Jordan, from the shore to the highest points. On the east, in addition to the rookery at Tower Point, we observed a dozen isolated nests at Bull Head Point, near Arch Rock, and about half that number right at the Weather Bureau observatory, where, rewarded for their confidence in man, they brooded unmolested. The great mass of driftwood, thrown up by winter storms, was a favorite spot in the Shell Beach rookery. We did not, however, observe any of these birds nesting off the main island.
While they are somewhat wary, many allowed us to come quite close before rising from their nests. The latter are placed in natural basinlike hollows among the rocks, by which they are partially sheltered, although some were in the most open and windy situations. The nest is a bulky structure, composed of various dry island weeds and grasses, and has about as much claim to ingenuity as those of most sea birds. They vary little in size, averaging 13 inches across, the cavity being 8 inches by 4 deep. About many of them [ noticed small heaps of ejected fishbones.
Mr. Brewster (1902) says of the nesting habits of this species in the Cape Region of Lower California: Mr. Frazar found a breeding colony of about 25 pairs on a small rocky island a little to the westward of Carmen Island. Most of the nests were only just begun, and but two contained eggs, one set, however, comprising the full complement of three. This was on March 13ós. date about two months earlier than that at which the first eggs are usually taken on the Farallon Islands near San Francisco. The next day another breeding ground was discovered on the northern end of the Island of Montserrat. Here some 50 pairs had congregated. Few of their nests were finished and only eight contained eggs, the number in each set varying from one to three. At both of the places just mentioned the nests, which were made of seaweed, were built at the foot of the cliffs, just above high-water mark, and often in nooks or crevices.
Although the nest may be frequently robbed and several sets of eggs may be laid, only one brood of young is raised in a season. The normal set consists of three eggs, though two eggs often constitute a full set in the later layings, and sometimes a single egg is incubated. Sets of four eggs are rare.
Eggs: The eggs of the western gull can not be distinguished with certainty from those of other gulls of similar size, and they are subject to the usual variations. The ground color is “buffy brown,” tawny olive,” “cinnamon buff,” ” deep olive ~ or ” pale olive buff.” They are usually heavily spotted, blotched, or scrawled, more or less evenly, with “clove brown,” “bister,” “burnt umber,” and various lighter shades of brown, as well as various shades of ” Quaker drab” and “mouse gray.” The measurements of 70 eggs, in various collections, average 72.4 by 50.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 78 by 47, 73 by 53, 67.5 by 48 and 78 by 47 millimeters.
Young: Mr. Emerson gives the period of incubation as 24 days. He says that both sexes take turns at the duties of incubation, but there are no set times for relieving each other. The bird which is off duty usually stands near the nest, on guard, slipping onto the nest when the sitting bird leaves. The young remain in the nest for a few days and are brooded by their parents, who are very bold and devoted in their defense. The young gulls soon learn to run about, becoming very lively, and are taught by their parents to become experts in the art of hiding. Mr. Finley (1905) says:
They teach their young to keep bidden and to lie close. I have seen more than one gull impress this upon her children. One day I was walking along a ledge and came abruptly to a place where I could look down the top slope. Below me a few yards I saw two half-grown gulls; one crouched beside a rock, hut the other started to run down the ridge He hadn’t gone 2 yards before the mother dove at him with a blow that knocked him rolling. He got up dazed and struck off in a new direction, but she swooped again and rapped him on the head till he seemed glad enough to crawl in under the nearest weed.
Occasionally we found the gulls very pugnacious. There was one mother that had a nest of three young birds on a narrow ledge, and every time the photographer approached her nest she would dart at him. She swooped at his head with a loud bark, something like a watchdog; at 6 or 8 feet distant she dropped her legs and took a sharp clip with her feet. Twice she knocked the hat from the intruder’s head.
Mr. Dawson (1909) visited a colony of this species in July and found that:
Young birds, from infants to those half grown, were in hiding everywhere. The danger sign had, of course, been passed around, and not a youngster on the island but froze in his tracks, no matter where he happened to be. It was pathetic to find, as I did now and then, babes soaking heroically in the filthy green pools left in hollows of the rocks by ancient ralas rather than attract attention by scrambling out. One youngster had evidently been nibbling playfully at a bit of driftwood cast high up, for I found him with the stick between his mandibles as motionless as a Pompeian mummy.
So bold and solicitous were the anxious mothers in the defense of their young that he was struck three times upon the head, always from behind, by vicious beaks while engaged in gathering up babies for a picture.
The young gulls are fed at first on semi digested foods, but their parents soon begin to feed them on small fish and other animal food. They become more omnivorous in their diet as they grow older, and are very voracious feeders. Their parents keep watchful guard over them until they are able to fly and will not let them attempt this hazardous feat until the proper time comes. Mr. A. B. Howell has noted that “if when full grown but still timid on their wings, they are thrown into the air, they will essay unsteady flight and are sure to be pounced upon by their elders, who, for some reason or other, knock the youngsters heels over head as long as they remain in the air “óa decided hint that the time for flight has not arrived.
Plumages: The downy young is “drab gray” above variegated with “avellaneous” or other shades of buff. Some individuals are grayer and others are brighter buff in color. The lower parts are lighter colored, paling to “tilleul buff” on the center of the breast; sometimes the breast is bright, clear, “avellaneous ~ buff in newly hatched young, the colors fading as the youngster grows. The back is heavily spotted with “fuscous black,” and the head and throat with pure black.
By the time that it is fully grown, at an age of about 2 months, the young bird has assumed its juvenal or first real plumage, in which it is heavily mottled above with “hair brown” and pale “avellaneous”; the feathers of the lower back and the scapulars are “clove brown” centrally, broadly edged with “a vellaneous” or “wood brown”; the cheeks are plain “hair brown”; and the crown is “hair brown” streaked with “light buff.” This plumage is worn but a short time and is replaced in the fall by the first winter plumage, which is acquired by a partial molt, involving part, or perhaps all, of the contour feathers, but not the wings and tail. I am inclined to think that part of this change is effected by wear and fading of the brown edgings.
The first winter plumage, deep blackish brown, mottled with grayish white, with the uniform dark primaries and rectrices, and with the bill wholly dusky, is worn throughout the first year or until the first postnuptial molt, when the bird is about 13 or 14 months old. A complete molt then occurs, at which time the slaty blue mantle is, at least partially, acquired, and the bill becomes yellow on the basal half. The new primaries are still wholly black and the tail wholly black or mottled with white near the base. The contour feathers or head and underparts are still mottled with dusky, but become lighter during the year by wear and fading. There is much brown still remaining in the wing-coverts. During the second spring there is a steady advance toward maturity, with great individual variation, the molt beginning as early as April in some eases. At this second postnuptial molt, which is complete, the wings of the adult, with black primaries tipped with white, are acquired, but there is sometimes more or less brown in the wing coverts; the tail becomes white with a subterminal black bar; the white body plumage appears, though it is much clouded with dusky in the fall; and the bill still remains dark at the tip. The fully adult plumage seems to be acquired perhaps a year later, when the bird is 3 years of age; this, of course, is characterized by the pure white tail and the yellow bill. Some birds, otherwise adult, during the fourth winter, have more or less dusky mottling in the tail, and some lack the subapical white spot, or have only a small one, on the outer primary. As these birds and those with the black-banded tail and brown wing coverts are comparatively rare, it may be that these are merely backward or less vigorous birds, and that normally vigorous birds acquire their fully adult plumage when 3 years old. I am inclined to think that this is so, but, as I am not sure of it, I have given what seem to be the facts in the case. The seasonal molts of the adult consist of a complete postnuptial molt in the summer and a partial molt about the head and neck in the spring. In spite of statements in some of the books to the contrary, adults have the heads streaked with dusky in the fall, which markings disappear by wear or fading, or perhaps by molt, before spring.
Food: Before the encroachments of civilization gave the western gull an easy way of earning its living as a scavenger, its principal food supply was gleaned from the sea; it followed the schools of small fish in flocks, hovering, screaming, and struggling for its prey in strenuous competition. When its appetite was satisfied a game of tag sometimes ensued, such as Mr. J. H. Bowles (1909) described as follows:
One catches a herring, and Instead of eating it flies with the fish hanging from Its bill, past three or four comrades. These accept the challenge and rush madly after, while the pursued goes through all sorts of evolutions in seeking to elude them. If overtaken, the order of chase is reversed, and the game goes merrily on until all are tired. The fish, or tag trophy, Is not eaten but Is dropped upon the playground in a condition decidedly the worse for wear.
Although fish still form a large part of its food, especially about its breeding grounds, it is primarily a scavenger, like the other large gulls, and has learned to frequent harbors and populated shores, where it can easily gorge itself on the garbage dumping grounds, pick up unsavory morsels at the outlets of sewers, and feed on whatever refuse it can find scattered along the beaches. It also follows vessels to pick up whatever scraps of food are thrown overboard. It feeds at low tide on the sand flats, mud banks, river shores, and mussel beds, where it finds dead fish, clams, seaworms, dead rats, or any kind of fresh animal food or carrion. It understands how to break the shells of a clam or a sea urchin by flying up into the air with it and dropping it on hard ground or on a rock, sometimes making several attempts before succeeding.
Mr. Walter E. Bryant (1888) says of its feeding habits:
The gulls are indiscriminate feeders; In addition to their usual articles of diet, they subsist largely upon eggs during the summer. They do not eat the eggs of their own species, nor do they trouble the cormorants after the murres have commenced laying. Sea-urchins, crabs, young murres, and rabbits, and fish stolen from the cormorants’ nests are eaten. Not being quick enough to swoop upon the rabbits they catch them by patient watching at their burrows, and will patiently try for 15 minutes to swallow a squealing young rabbit, and finally fly away with the hind feet protruding. The dead bodies of murres are also eaten; they detach pieces of flesh by backing away and dragging the body, meanwhile shaking their heads, till a piece breaks off.
Perhaps the most important food supply of the western gull on its breeding grounds consists of the eggs of other birds, near which it almost always nests. The sagacity displayed by the gulls in taking advantage of the human egg hunters is well described by Dr. A. L. Hermann (1859) as follows:
At 1 o’clock every day, during the egg season, Sundays and Thursdays excepted (this is to give the birds some little respite), the egg hunters meet on the south side of the island. The roll is called to see that all are present, that each one may have an equal chance in gathering the spoil. The signal Is given, every man starting off at a full run for the most productive egging grounds. The gulls understanding, apparently, what is about to occur, are on the alert, hovering overhead and awaiting only the advance of the party. The men rush eagerly into the rookeries; the affrighted murres have scarcely risen from their nests before the gull, with remarkable instinct, not to say almost reason, flying hut a few paces ahead of the hunter, alights on the ground, tapping such eggs as the short time will allow before the egger comes up with him. The broken eggs are passed by the men, who remove only those which are sound. The gull then returning to the field of its exploits, procures a plentiful supply of its favorite food.
I have repeatedly seen this gull drink salt water, and I believo that all ocean gulls do so though I have beard it stated that they prefer fresh water. They do not, however, like their food too salty as the following instance, related by Mr. A. W. Anthony (1906) will illustrate:
I was one day watching some western gulls, a few yards from me on a wharf, when a large piece of salted fish was thrown out from an adjacent boathouse. It fairly glistened with a thick incrustation of salt, and I was somewhat curious to see if the gulls would eat food so highly seasoned. No sooner had it fallen than It was seized upon by a gull and as quickly swallowed; but from the surprised actions of the bird it was evidently not to his liking; no sooner had it reached the stomach than it was ordered out again. Dropping the fish on the wharf the bird eyed It for a moment, turning its head from side to side, and, to judge from its soliloquy, made a number of uncomplimentary remarks on the depraved tastes of mankind that would spoil good fish In that manner. Then picking up the fish it flew down to the water, and holding It under the surface shook its head from side to side violently “sozzeling” the meat about for several seconds. It was then taken back to the wharf, laid down and inspected, and carefully sampled; this time, however, it was not bolted as at first, but held for a moment In the mouth and again rejected, and carried back to the water, where It was even more roughly laundered. This operation was repeated several times; and the piece of fish, which must have weighted 4 ounces at the outset, was reduced to half that size before it reached a state of freshness that suited the palate of the gull.
Behavior: The flight of the western gull is not unlike that of other closely related species; it has the same power of sailing directly into the wind, or within a few points of it, on motionless wings. I have seen it travel for long distances in this manner without any apparent effort. It also has the same soaring habits as other large gulls, rising to great heights and circling about on outstretched pinions, as if enjoying the exercise. While soaring it occasionally preens the feathers of its breast with its bill or raises one foot to scratch its head, without losing its poise. Once, while sailing before a strong wind, almost a gale, a lot of these gulls were following us to pick scraps of food which we were throwing overboard; it was necessary for them to face the wind and drift along tail foremost, so as to keep pace with our boat; they were not sailing or drifting, but were maintaining their positions by constant flapping and were apparently flying backwards. While flying the feet are extended backwards and buried in the plumage, but when about to alight they are dropped and spread. A sudden descent from a considerable height is quickly accomplished by a spiral or a zigzag glide, on half extended wings, with frequent quick tipping from side to side.
The cries and call notes of this gull are much like those of other species. Mr. Charles A. Keeler (1892) has given a good description of them, as follows:
Their most common note may be expressed by the syllables quack kucic kuck kuck, uttered very rapidly in a low, guttural tone. Sometimes it was varied thus kucic kuck kuck Ice, the quality of tone being the same as In the first instance. Frequently a higher cry would be heard, which may be indicated by the letters kf aa, with a strong accent on the first syllable. Again, one would utter a rattling, guttural cry, which sounded like a man being throttled.
The behavior of western gulls toward their neighbors is truly scandalous. They must be cordially hated and seriously dreaded by the various species among which they nest, for they are arrant thieves, ever on the alert to improve every opportunity to steal and devour any unprotected eggs or young which they can find. They usually select a breeding place among nesting colonies of cormorants, murres, or pelicans, chiefly because they can there find an abundant food supply in the nests of their peaceful neighbors. Cormorants, being rather shy, are easily driven from their nests by human intruders and do not readily return, so that the gulls often succeed in cleaning out a whole colony. Eternal vigilance is the price of success in rearing a brood with such rogues roaming about and looking for the slightest chance. The cormorants and pelicans have to sit on their eggs constantly from the day they are laid, or the gulls will get them. This will account for the fact that the young in the nests of these species are often of widely differently ages. Even the young have to be constantly brooded, for the gulls will swallow the smallest young whole and mutilate or beat to death the larger ones. Mr. A. W. Anthony (1906) has graphically described this performance as follows:
The advent of man in the region of a cormorant rookery is hailed with delight by every gull on the island, but to the poor cormorant it is a calamity of the darkest hue. As the frightened birds leave the nests, which have so far never been for a moment left without the protection of at least one of the parents, the screaming gulls descend in swarms to break and eat the eggs or kill the young, as the case may be. Small cormorants are bolted entire, despite their somewhat half-hearted protest; larger birds are dismembered by two gulls assisting In the operation, after the well-known manner of barnyard chicks with a worm; and before the adult cormorants have recovered from their fright and returned to protect their homes a colony of several hundred nests will be almost destroyed. I have found young western gulls feasting on cormorant squabs half a mile Or more from the nests from which they had been abducted.
Mr. A. B. Howell writes:
These robbers are surely the pest of their range during the spring months. When the pelicans and cormorants are flushed from their nests, down comes a devastating army of the marauders, spearing the eggs with their bills and neatly devouring them on the wing, pecking holes in the skulls of the young pelicans for the fun of it, and bolting the shiny cormorant chicks with a great gulping and show of satIsfaction. A favorite pastime of theirs Is to pester a half grown pelican until the latter relinquishes his last meal as a peace offering, and this the gulls greedily fight over. The gulls themselves have few enemies, except man, and now that egging has been practically stopped they are free to increase and flourish.
Winter: After the breeding season is over and the young gulls have become strong on the wing, they begin to scatter and spread out all along the coast, extending the winter range of the species northward to Puget Sound, where it is one of the common winter gulls. They are given to wandering at this season, following the vessels up and down the coast, chasing schools of fish, feasting on the garbage dumps, roosting on the islands at night, and associating freely with other species of gulls, cormorants, pelicans, and other sea birds.
Breeding range: Pacific coast of North America, from British Columbia and Washington (various islands off the coast) southward along the coasts of Oregon, California, and Lower California, on nearly all suitable islands, at least as far as Cerros and Guadalupe Islands; also in the Gulf of California (San Pedro Martir, Ildefonso and Carmen Islands).
Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservations: In California, Farallon Islands; in Oregon, Three Arch Rocks; in Washington, Copalis Rock and Quillayute Needles, as Carroll Islet.
Winter range: Practically resident throughout its breeding range. North in winter to British Columbia and south to southwestern Mexico (Isabella and Tres Marias Islands, Tepic).
Egg dates: Farallon Islands: Fifty-five records, May 12 to July 10; twenty-eight records, June 3 to 24. Coronados Islands: Ten records, May 6 to June 30; five records, May 11 to June 4. Washington: Seven records, June 3 to July 12; four records, June 3 to 14. Gulf of California: Three records, April 5, 6, and 7.