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Ring-billed Gull

Larus delawarensis ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Familiar acrobats of the air, Ring-billed Gulls nimbly pluck tossed tidbits from on high. Comfortable around humans, they frequent parking lots, garbage dumps, beaches, and fields, sometimes by the hundreds. These are the gulls you're most likely to see far away from coastal areas—in fact, most Ring-billed Gulls nest in the interior of the continent, near freshwater. A black band encircling the yellow bill helps distinguish adults from other gulls—but look closely, as some other species have black or red spots on the bill.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
16.9–21.3 in
43–54 cm
Wingspan
41.3–46.1 in
105–117 cm
Weight
10.6–24.7 oz
300–700 g
Relative Size
Roughly pigeon-sized body (but with long wings), smaller than Herring Gull
Other Names
  • Goéland à bec cerclé (French)
  • Apipizca pinta (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Many, if not most, Ring-billed Gulls return to breed at the colony where they hatched. Once they have bred, they are likely to return to the same breeding spot each year, often nesting within a few meters of the last year's nest site. Many individuals return to the same wintering sites each winter too.
  • Although it is considered a typical large white-headed gull, the Ring-billed Gull has been known to hybridize only with smaller, black-headed species, such as Franklin's, Black-headed, and Laughing gulls.
  • Migrating Ring-billed Gulls apparently use a built-in compass to navigate. When tested at only two days of age, chicks showed a preference for magnetic bearings that would take them in the appropriate direction for their fall migration. The gulls also rely on landmarks and high-altitude winds to provide directional cues.
  • Ring-billed Gulls near Tampa Bay, Florida, became accustomed to feasting on garbage at an open landfill site. Then, in 1983, operators replaced the dumping grounds with closed incinerators. The thwarted scavengers found themselves another open dump, but the pattern continues all across the gull's range. When waste-management practices shift from open landfills to closed incinerators, gull numbers often drop.
  • Some Ring-billed Gull nests at study sites in California and Oregon contained pebbles the size and shape of gull eggs. The parents apparently pulled the pebbles into their nests from the surrounding ground, mistaking them for eggs gone astray.
  • Ring-billed Gull nesting colonies normally include a small percentage of two-female couples. Fertilized by an obliging male, each female spouse lays a clutch of eggs, leading to 5–7-egg "superclutches."

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Ring-billed Gulls are often found in and around urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. In coastal areas, Ring-billed Gulls frequent estuaries, beaches, mudflats, and coastal waters. In winter, these birds are common around docks, wharves, and harbors. Ring-billed Gulls are more commonly seen inland than most other gull species. They can be found at reservoirs, lakes, ponds, streams, landfills, parking lots, and shopping malls.

Food


Omnivore

Able to thrive on almost any available source of nutrition, Ring-billed Gulls eat mostly fish, insects, earthworms, rodents, grain, and garbage. Common fish prey include alewife, smelt, nine-spined stickleback, and yellow perch; insect meals feature primarily beetles, flies, dragonflies, and bugs. In the western U.S., many Ring-billed Gull populations find most of their food on farm fields, forgoing fish altogether. In addition to their more common fare, Ring-billed Gulls have been known to eat dates, cherries, blueberries, and strawberries, as well as French fries and other food discarded—or left unguarded—by people.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2–2.6 in
5–6.6 cm
Egg Width
1.4–1.8 in
3.6–4.6 cm
Incubation Period
20–31 days
Nestling Period
4–5 days
Egg Description
Pale olive gray with dark brown speckles.
Condition at Hatching
Covered in camouflaged gray and brown down feathers; eyes open by end of the first day; may leave nest briefly by 2 days old.
Nest Description

The male and female cooperate in constructing the nest—a scrape in the ground lined with twigs, sticks, grasses, leaves, lichens, or mosses. Some nests are minimalist affairs with almost no lining. The nest's outer diameter ranges from about 10 to 25 inches, with an inner cup about 9 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

Ring-billed gulls nest in colonies numbering from 20 to tens of thousands of pairs. They build their nests on the ground near freshwater, usually on low, sparsely vegetated terrain. They may nest on sandbars, rocky beaches, driftwood, bare rock, concrete, or soil. They often choose sites near or underneath low plants to hide them from aerial predators. Nest sites tend to be used for multiple seasons, by new or returning pairs.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Ring-billed Gulls are strong, graceful flyers. They can race along at more than 40 miles per hour, and they're adept at snatching food from the air. You may see these birds hovering, soaring, or poised and stationary in the wind. Adults play by repeatedly dropping objects, then swooping to catch them—perhaps honing their hunting moves. These gulls use a wide variety of foraging methods: walking around on land; stamping their feet in shallow water to uncover small invertebrates; skimming shallow water for small fish; nabbing insects out of the air. They steal food from other birds, hunt for small rodents, and scavenge along beaches, parks, and garbage dumps. Birds in large nonbreeding groups usually space themselves evenly, about 3–6 feet apart. Like many other gull species, when Ring-billed Gulls are feeling aggressive they'll lower their head, begin calling, and then raise their head up to their shoulders. This can escalate to an exaggerated toss of the head over the back while calling. To signal submission, a Ring-billed Gull will draw its head back in toward its shoulders and make shorter, calmer calls, sometimes tossing its head up or away from its opponent as well.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

After nearly succumbing to hunting and habitat loss, Ring-billed Gull populations have been increasing since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. They can be found throughout the year in the U.S. and Canada, with some wintering in Mexico and other areas of Central America. Their populations plummeted during the late nineteenth century, when humans encroached on the birds' nesting grounds and killed them for feathers to decorate hats. By the early 1900s many breeding sites were defunct. Protection under the 1917 Migratory Birds Convention Act (Canada) and 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act (U.S.) helped bring the species back, and now this species once again thrives across the United States and southern Canada—so numerous in some places that they are considered pests. In the middle of the twentieth century, Ring-billed Gulls around Lake Ontario proved susceptible to the pesticide DDT and to PCB pollution. Environmental regulations in the 1970s helped reduce pollution levels. Humans have generally helped Ring-billed Gulls by providing extra foods, including introduced fish; insects and grain exposed on farm fields; and discarded food and refuse. The Ring-billed Gull continues to extend its breeding range—likely fueled in part by the edible garbage available at open landfills.

Credits

  • Ryder, J. P. 1992. Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 33 (A. Poole, P. Stettenheim, and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder’s Handbook. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  • Sibley, D. A. 2003. The Sibley Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America. Knopf, New York.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2012. North American Breeding Bird Survey 1966–2010 analysis.

Range Map Help

Ring-billed Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short- to medium-distance migrant. Many birds migrate along coasts, including the Great Lakes, and major rivers. Ring-billed Gulls spend the winter throughout the southern United States.

Find This Bird

Look for these gulls in parking lots, at sporting events, and around sewage ponds and garbage dumps. You may see them foraging for insects and worms in newly plowed fields, or perching atop light poles near shopping malls and fast-food restaurants. They also frequent reservoirs, lakes, marshes, mudflats, and beaches.