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Laughing Gull

Leucophaeus atricilla ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Swirling over beaches with strident calls and a distinctive, crisp black head, Laughing Gulls provide sights and sounds evocative of summer on the East Coast. You’ll run across this handsome gull in large numbers at beaches, docks, and parking lots, where they wait for handouts or fill the air with their raucous calls. Laughing Gulls are summer visitors to the Northeast and year-round sights on the coasts of the Southeast and the Gulf of Mexico.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.4–18.1 in
39–46 cm
Wingspan
36.2–47.2 in
92–120 cm
Weight
7.2–13.1 oz
203–371 g
Other Names
  • Mouette atricille (French)
  • Guanaguanare (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Nest colonies in the northeastern United States were nearly eliminated by egg and plume hunters in the late 19th century. Populations have increased over the last century, following protection.
  • The male and female Laughing Gull usually build their nest together. If a male cannot find a mate, he may start building a nest platform and then use it to attract a female.
  • The Laughing Gull is normally diurnal, or active during the day. During the breeding season it forages at night as well. It usually looks for food along the beach at night, but will also hover to catch insects around lights.
  • The adult Laughing Gull removes the eggshells from the nest after the eggs hatch. If the shells are not removed, a piece can become lodged on top of the slightly smaller unhatched third egg and prevent it from hatching.
  • The Laughing Gull’s species name is cachinnans, which is a 10-dollar word that comes from Latin and means to laugh heartily. Linguists believe that the word came about because it sounds like laughing—try saying it and see if you agree.
  • The oldest known Laughing Gull was 22 years old.

Habitat


Shore-line

Laughing Gulls are primarily coastal gulls and are only rarely found far inland. Look for them along beaches, in saltmarshes, in mangroves, or on agricultural fields or landfills near the coast. They nest in saltmarshes, on islands including artificial ones created from dredge spoils, and on sandy beaches—the main requirements being safety from terrestrial predators. They form colonies up to 25,000 pairs in size, and they are occasionally joined by species such as terns, larger gulls, Black Skimmers, and American Oystercatchers. On migration and in winter, Laughing Gulls are found along coasts and in bays and estuaries, as well as in landfills and on lakes a little ways inland.

Food


Insects

Like most gulls, Laughing Gulls have very broad palates. They eat many invertebrates, including earthworms, insects (including flying ones), snails, crabs, and crab eggs, as well as fish, squid, berries, garbage, offal, and handouts from beachgoers. They occasionally eat eggs of other birds (though not as frequently as larger gulls do)—John James Audubon saw them preying on Sooty Tern and Brown Noddy eggs and chicks, and they’ve also been reported eating Royal Tern eggs.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
1.8–2.4 in
4.5–6 cm
Egg Width
1.3–1.6 in
3.2–4 cm
Incubation Period
22–27 days
Nestling Period
35 days
Egg Description
Slightly pointed at one end. Brown with black splotches.
Condition at Hatching
Chicks may leave nest cup at 1 day old, though they typically stay on platform for several days. They hatch covered in down that’s so well camouflaged the chicks are almost invisible.
Nest Description

Both sexes help build the nest; sometimes the male begins the process and uses it to try and attract a mate. Males typically bring more of the nest material, and the female arranges it. She arranges saltmarsh vegetation and grasses to form a rim that’s a foot across, containing a cup 6 inches in diameter and about 2.5 inches deep. She may attach the nest to the surrounding vegetation so that the nest doesn’t get swept away if flooded. If storms or floods damage or soak the nest, the parents add more material to shore it up.

Nest Placement

Ground

Laughing Gulls may place their nests on sand, rocks, mats of dead vegetation, or hidden among the leaves of low plants. They typically look for slightly higher spots in order to minimize the chance of the nest being flooded by high tides or storm waters.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Laughing Gulls wheel in the sky, stand in groups on beaches and parking lots, follow heavy machinery on agricultural fields or at landfills, and paddle in the water off docks and beaches. They are opportunistic, like most gulls, and often harry terns and pelicans to try to steal their catch. Look for Laughing Gulls hovering over the head of a pelican that has just dived, hoping for a fish to slip out of the larger bird’s gullet. Laughing Gulls use ritualized displays to keep order among themselves. These involve exaggerated calls and movements: Laughing Gulls threaten each other or simply claim space by extending the neck and head, lowering them toward the ground and calling, tossing the head backward repeatedly while calling, or ruffling their feathers, nodding the head, and flapping the wings. They signal submissiveness by turning the head away from their opponents. Laughing Gulls are monogamous and pairs often stay together for several breeding seasons. Chicks are vulnerable to mink, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, owls, and harriers.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Laughing Gulls are common and their populations increased by almost 4 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. This increase reflects the species' recovery from severe hunting in the late nineteenth century for their eggs and for plumes for the hat trade. A 1990 survey estimated there were 258,000 breeding pairs in the United States. People can still threaten individual gull colonies by disturbing the birds while they are nesting, driving over nest sites with off-road vehicles, or letting off-leash dogs run through colonies. A study in the 1970s indicated that Laughing Gulls exposed to the pesticide DDT were susceptible to eggshell thinning. Development of beachfront property or estuaries can reduce breeding or foraging habitat for this species, although discards from fishing boats are one of the reasons gull populations have increased in the past.

Credits

Range Map Help

Laughing Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. Laughing Gulls that breed north of North Carolina typically leave the region to spend winters in Central America or northern South America, as well as along the southern Atlantic Coast and Gulf Coast. Birds in Florida may remain there year-round.

Find This Bird

Look for Laughing Gulls at the beach, especially during summer when their crisp black hoods and red bills make them easy to pick out from other gull species. You may also notice that their back and wings (the mantle) are considerably darker than common medium-sized gulls such as Ring-billed Gulls; this can also help you to pick them out from a crowd.

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