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Laughing Gull Life History


ShorelinesLaughing 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.Back to top


Aquatic invertebratesLike 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundLaughing 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-4 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
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.
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Ground ForagerLaughing 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. Back to top


Low ConcernLaughing Gulls are common and their populations increased between 1966 and 2015, 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. The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimates a continental population of 528,000-538,000 breeding birds. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Laughing Gull is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. People 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.Back to top


Burger, Joanna. (2015). Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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