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California Gull

Larus californicus ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Gulls are often thought of as coastal birds, but California Gulls are also common in inland areas in the West. These medium-sized gulls breed in colonies on islands and levees in lakes and rivers. You'll also spot them in pastures, scrublands, and garbage dumps as they often forage miles from the colony, eating everything they can find from mayflies to garbage. In the winter they head to the coast where they cruise up and down the shoreline with other gulls.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
18.5–21.3 in
47–54 cm
Wingspan
51.2 in
130 cm
Weight
15.2–36.9 oz
430–1045 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Ring-billed Gull, smaller than a Herring Gull.
Other Names
  • Goéland de Californie (French)
  • Gaviota Californiana (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In 1848, a plague of katydids (also known as Mormon crickets) began devouring the crops of Mormon settlers in Utah. When California Gulls returned to breed, they started feasting on the katydids, saving the crops from complete destruction. A golden statue in Salt Lake City commemorates the event, and in recognition the California Gull was made the state bird of Utah.
  • The California Gull, like most gulls, is an opportunist, eating anything it can catch or scavenge. It has an odd foraging strategy for catching alkali flies that congregate on the shores of salty lakes in the Great Basin. It starts at one end of a huge raft of flies and runs through them with its head down and bill open, snapping them up along the way.
  • Both parents incubate the eggs, taking turns throughout the day at about 3–4 hour intervals. When it's time to trade incubation duties, an adult flies into the nest area while calling. The incubating gull stands up and gives several "long calls" as its mate lands near the nest. The returning mate joins in the calling and eventually takes over incubation duties. Sometimes the incubating bird isn't ready to leave the nest, so the returning mate offers encouragement by giving the "choking call," presenting nest material, or physically nudging its mate to get it off the nest.
  • Learning how to fly takes practice and so does learning how to catch something in midair. Young California Gulls practice this skill by dropping a stick in midair and swooping down to catch it.
  • The oldest recorded California Gull was at least 28 years, 3 months old when it was caught due to an injury in California in 2013. It had been banded in the same state in 1985.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

California Gulls primarily breed on sparsely vegetated islands and levees in inland lakes and rivers, but they also breed in salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay, California. Breeding colonies range from sea level to 9,000 feet elevation and are usually surrounded by water to prevent predators from reaching the nests. During the breeding season they may forage up to 40 miles away from the breeding colony in open areas including farm fields, garbage dumps, meadows, scrublands, yards, orchards, and pastures. They tend to avoid heavily forested areas. In the winter they forage along the Pacific Coast, using mudflats, rocky shorelines, beaches, estuaries, and river deltas.

Food


Insects

California Gulls are omnivores that eat Just about anything that will fit into their mouths, including fish, garbage, grasshoppers, mayflies, brine shrimp, earthworms, small mammals, cherries, bird eggs, grains, carrion, and more. They scavenge food from the ground, run after flying insects, pick prey off the surface of the water, and plunge into the water after fish.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.5–2.7 in
6.3–6.8 cm
Egg Width
1.7–1.9 in
4.4–4.7 cm
Incubation Period
23–27 days
Nestling Period
3–4 days
Egg Description
Buff to greenish, with dark spots, speckles, splotches, and short swirls.
Condition at Hatching
Completely covered in down and able to stand within a few hours after hatching.
Nest Description

Both sexes help build the nest with small pieces of bone, feathers, grasses, and other pieces of vegetation found nearby. The female shapes the inside of the nest with her body to form a cup. It takes them about 1 week to complete the nest, which is around 11 inches wide. The size depends on how much material they add; some nests are just scrapes in the ground while others are larger with a lot of feathers and vegetation.

Nest Placement

Ground

Pairs walk around their territory together digging small scrapes in the ground until they find a suitable spot to build a nest. They build their nest on the ground in the open or at the base of a small shrub. They nest in colonies, and sometimes they nest in the same spot as the previous year.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Adept on land, in the air, and on the water, California Gulls run, fly, and swim to find food. On the breeding grounds, they often run through swarms of flies with their bills open. In the water they paddle much like a duck, but they also dive into the water after fish. They eat just about anything they can find, from grasshoppers to garbage. Resting gulls often stand on one leg or sit with their legs folded underneath with their eyes closed. They frequently associate with other California Gulls as well as other gull species. Despite their highly social nature, they defend their nest areas in the breeding colony. They threaten intruders by stretching their necks straight up, by pushing their heads forward and opening their bills, or by throwing their heads up and then down to their chest while calling. Gulls that share territorial boundaries sometimes bite grass or other vegetation, aggressively pulling at it to indicate ownership of the area. If a neighboring gull crosses the line, fighting and bill jabbing usually ensues. California Gulls form monogamous pairs when they are 4 years old, some of which stay together for more than one breeding season. When the pair is ready to mate, each bird tosses its head in an arc up and over the back and offers its mate food. They perform a choking display (see Sounds) before and during nest building, in which they put their breast to the ground and jerk their heads up and down as if they were choking.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

California Gulls are common throughout their range. They are also now breeding in large numbers in salt ponds in the San Francisco Bay area. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, populations were generally stable between 1966 and 2015, though there have been significant declines in some areas. Partners in Flight estimate a continental breeding population of 410,000 breeding birds. California Gull rates a 12 out of 20 on Partners in Flight's Continental Concern Score published in the 2016 State of North America's Birds report. The species is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

California Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short to medium-distance migrant.

Find This Bird

In the summer, look for California Gulls breeding along inland lakes and rivers, as well as foraging in pastures or parking lots. In the winter they move to the coast where they spend time bathing, drinking, and resting near fresh water. Look for a rivermouth along the coast to find a roosting site. Here you will likely find several gull species, making it easier to judge size and study plumage. Look for a medium-sized gull with yellowish legs and a medium gray back. In flight, look for their deeper and quicker wingbeats than larger gulls, like Herring Gulls, but slower and shallower beats than smaller gulls, like Ring-billed Gulls.

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A Noble Vision of Gulls, Living Bird, Summer 2016.

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