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Herring Gull

Larus argentatus ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Spiraling above a fishing boat or squabbling at a dock or parking lot, Herring Gulls are the quintessential gray-and-white, pink-legged "seagulls." They're the most familiar gulls of the North Atlantic and can be found across much of coastal North America in winter. A variety of plumages worn in their first four years can make identification tricky—so begin by learning to recognize their beefy size and shape.

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Keys to identification Help

Gulls
Gulls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Herring Gulls are large gulls with hefty bills and robust bodies. In flight, they look barrel-chested and broad-winged compared to smaller species such as Ring-billed Gulls.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults have light-gray backs, black wingtips, and white heads and underparts. In winter, dusky streaks mark their heads. Herring Gulls take four years to reach adult plumage. Juveniles are mottled brown; second-year birds are brown but show gray on the back. Third-years have more gray on the back and more white on the head and underparts. The legs are dull pink at all ages.

  • Behavior

    Herring Gulls patrol shorelines and open ocean, picking scraps off the surface. Rallying around fishing boats or refuse dumps, they are loud and competitive scavengers, happy to snatch another bird's meal. They spend much of their time perched near food sources, often in congregations of gulls.

  • Habitat

    Look for Herring Gulls in winter along coasts and near large reservoirs, lakes, and major rivers. They feed in habitats as diverse as open water, mudflats, plowed fields, and garbage dumps, and gather in almost any open space near food. In summer, they’re most likely to be seen along the Atlantic Coast, Great Lakes, and coastal Alaska; they also breed across the boreal far north.

Range Map Help

Herring Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Large, slender gull with long bill
    • Pale gray back, bright white underparts
    • Stout yellow bill with red spot near tip of lower half
    • Pink legs
    • © Laura Erickson, Tettegouche State Park, Minnesota, June 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Large gull with long yellow bill
    • Gray back, bright white head and underparts
    • Red spot near tip of lower bill
    • Pink legs
    • © Charlie Hickey, Cape May, New Jersey, April 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Large, slender gull with long yellow bill
    • Pale gray back, bright white head and underparts
    • Red spot near tip of lower bill
    • Pink legs
    • © Jim Paris, Barnegat Inlet, New Jersey, March 2009
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large and slender gull with pale gray streaks on white head
    • Pale gray back and wings
    • Unmarked white tail
    • Black wing-tips with bold white spots along edges
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Monterey, California, February 2007
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large gull with long, narrow wings
    • Unmarked white tail
    • White head with pale gray streaking on crown and neck
    • Long yellow bill with black and red spot near tip of lower half
    • © Michael J. Andersen, Bullhead Bay, Suffolk County, New York, December 2009
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Herring Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large, slender gull with long yellow bill
    • Pink legs
    • Pale gray back
    • Red spot near tip of lower bill
    • © Gary Tyson, Cape May, New Jersey, September 2010
  • Juvenile

    Herring Gull

    Juvenile
    • Large, slender gull
    • Uniform dark brown overall
    • Heavily patterned wings
    • Long, black or dark gray bill
    • © Kevin T. Karlson
  • Juvenile

    Herring Gull

    Juvenile
    • Large, slender gull
    • Uniform dark brown overall
    • Darker wing tips
    • Mostly black or dark gray bill
    • © Gary Tyson, Cape May, New Jersey, September 2010
  • First winter

    Herring Gull

    First winter
    • Large, long-billed gull
    • Mostly dirty brown throughout, with patterned wings
    • Paler head with dark eye
    • Bill mostly black but dull gray at base
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Moss Landing, California, March 2009
  • First winter

    Herring Gull

    First winter
    • Large, long-billed gull with long, narrow wings
    • Mostly dirty brown overall with paler head and coarsely-patterned wings
    • Inner primary feathers paler than outer feathers
    • Dark eye and mostly black bill
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Pt. Pinos, Monterey, California, February 2007
  • First winter

    Herring Gull

    First winter
    • Large, slender gull
    • Mostly dirty brown
    • Coarsely-patterned wings
    • Paler head with black eye
    • © Recycle! The planet thanks you!, Titusville, Florida, February 2011
  • Second winter

    Herring Gull

    Second winter
    • Large, long-winged gull
    • Pale gray/brown throughout
    • Densely patterned wings, with bright gray inner primaries contrasting with darker tips
    • Pink bill with black tip
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Pt. Pinos, Monterey, California, February 2007
  • Second winter

    Herring Gull

    Second winter
    • Large, long-billed gull
    • Mostly white head with faint streaks and yellow eye
    • Pink legs
    • Mottled brown body with patches of pale gray on back
    • © Robinsegg, Farmington Bay, Utah, February 2009
  • Third winter

    Herring Gull

    Third winter
    • Large, slender-bodied gull
    • Pink legs
    • Mostly gray wings with some brown patterning on coverts
    • Mostly white head with yellow eye and black-tipped bill
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Ithaca, New York, January 2008
  • Third winter

    Herring Gull

    Third winter
    • Large, long-winged gull
    • Mostly pale gray back with some dusky brown on wings
    • Pale head
    • White rump and tail with dark band at tip
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, Lovers' Point, Monterey, California, January 2007

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult

    Ring-billed Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Smaller and chunkier than Herring Gull
    • Yellow bill with black ring
    • Yellow-green legs
    • © Nancy Clark, Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, May 2011
  • First winter

    Ring-billed Gull

    First winter
    • Similar to third winter Herring Gull, but smaller and chunkier
    • Stubby pink bill with clean-cut black tip
    • Densely-streaked head with black eye
    • © Michael J. Andersen, Brooklyn, New York, December 2009
  • Breeding adult

    California Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Smaller than Herring Gull with more rounded head
    • Black and red spots on lower bill
    • © Robinsegg, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 2009
  • First summer

    California Gull

    First summer
    • Smaller than Herring Gull with more rounded head
    • Distinctive bright white head, even at young age
    • Long wings
    • © Tim Lenz, California, August 2010

Similar Species

Since so many gull species look so similar, it’s essential to consider size and shape and range to tell them apart. Both California Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls are considerably smaller than Herring Gulls, with a daintier bill and more slender body. Both California Gulls and Ring-billed Gulls tend to be more common in inland locations than Herring Gulls. On the West Coast, the similarly sized Glaucous-winged Gull is heftier overall with a thicker bill, shorter wings and stockier body. They typically have gray wingtips, though hybrids with the Western Gull (hybrids are common around Puget Sound) can have black wingtips. Lesser Black-backed Gulls are slightly smaller and longer-winged than Herring Gulls; adults have darker backs and yellow, not pink, legs. The Great Black-backed Gull of the East Coast and Western Gull of the West Coast are considerably larger and darker on the back as adults than Herring Gulls.

Regional Differences

Herring Gulls vary considerably across the Northern Hemisphere, and this combined with their tendency to hybridize with other gull species causes headaches in both taxonomy and identification. By sight, the different types of Herring Gulls are difficult to distinguish, and only the American Herring Gull (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) is likely to be seen in North America. European Herring Gulls (L . a. argentatus) and Yellow-legged Gulls (Larus michahellis, recently designated a separate species) are very rare visitors to eastern North America. The Vega Gull (L. a. vegae), a subspecies with a darker gray back, breeds in northwest Alaska and northeast Asia, but is very rare in the rest of North America.

Find This Bird

Look for Herring Gulls soaring along coastal shorelines, feeding on beaches, or squabbling at refuse dumps. Almost any large open space near water can become a winter hangout. Except along the north Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and southern Alaskan coast, expect to see only nonbreeding adults and a motley array of immature gulls. These may be hard to recognize at first until you learn their beefy profiles. Once you know this fairly common species, they can help you identify other gull species.

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