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Little Gull Life History


Lakes and PondsLittle Gulls rarely nest in North America, but when they do, they nest mostly in Canada around the Great Lakes and northward to the Hudson Bay area. They select lowland freshwater wetlands that are also attractive to terns (Black, Common, Forster’s), but in the northern part of their range, they also inhabit brackish wetlands around Churchill, Manitoba, near sites where Ross’s Gulls have nested. Little Gulls typically build nests in emergent vegetation (reeds such as cattail or bur reed, or rushes such as bulrush), but their nests have been found on tree stumps, planks, and other debris along the water’s edge as well. Migrating Little Gulls turn up in many settings: on rivers and lakes almost anywhere in the continent’s interior, along ocean beaches, and far offshore in pelagic waters. Like Bonaparte’s, they rest on the water or sometimes on shorelines and mudflats, and forage readily at sewage treatment facilities and the warm-water outflow of power plants. For most of the nonbreeding months in eastern North America, they join Bonaparte’s Gull flocks, which forage over schools of predatory fish (sometimes far out to sea), pirate small fish from other seabirds (such as Razorbills), and also forage at areas of upwelling or where ocean currents meet, such as where the Gulf Stream joins the Labrador Current.Back to top


Aquatic invertebratesLittle Gulls forage much like terns, capturing insects, small fish, and aquatic invertebrates by flying low over water, hovering briefly, and picking prey from the water’s surface or just below it. Like terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls, they also dive into the water to capture prey lower in the water. They capture flying insects in the air and occasionally pick insect larvae from trees while hovering or pluck mayflies from the water’s surface while swimming, like a phalarope. They sometimes follow ships or large boats, capturing fish brought to the surface by their propellers, and likewise forage in river rapids, such as the turbulent waters of the Niagara River, where prey are churned to the surface. Emerald shiner, rainbow smelt, and many other small fish probably form the bulk of the diet during the nonbreeding season.Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundNests are set on the edges of freshwater or brackish wetlands, in emergent vegetation such as rushes or reeds, or else on small prominences along the shoreline such as muskrat dens.

Nest Description

Male and female make an initial nest scrape and then, after egg laying, they construct the nest together. The nest is a shallow cup made of emergent vegetation stalks, sometimes with algae around the rim, similar to the nest of the Black Tern. Nests in North America average about 7.2 inches across and 3.2 inches tall (above waterline), with an interior cup 4.7 inches across and 1 inch deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-4 eggs
Egg Description:Olive to buff, marked with numerous small spots and blotches of dark brown, often concentrated around the larger end.
Condition at Hatching:Semiprecocial with eyes open. Covered in down. Able to stand within a day, leave nest within a few days of hatching.
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DabblerAdult Little Gulls start courtship as soon as they arrive in breeding areas. Male and female stand close together, raise their heads, look away from each other, and walk in circles around each other, sometimes pecking at the ground. A receptive female may hunch down and raise the bill, giving begging calls, and the male responds with courtship feeding; he regurgitates a paste of food into the female’s mouth. Male Little Gulls sometimes display in the air as well, giving a long call as they circle over the territory. At the nest, Little Gulls perform a “choking display,” with neck stretched out, head pointed downward (appearing as though choking on a piece of food), wings raised, and giving a short, grating call. On occasion, the pair is joined by a third adult or subadult, which socializes with the pair during breeding, apparently without conflict. Although they do not nest in dense colonies, Little Gulls tolerate the presence of other pairs nearby, and they also tolerate nests of terns inside their territories. Both adults build the nest, incubate the eggs, and feed the young.Back to top


Low Concern

Little Gull population trends in North America are unknown. Counts of migrants and wintering birds vary each year, but have been lower in the past 20 years than in the 1990s. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 120,000 individuals (the great majority in Eurasia) and rates the species a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. Little Gulls’ wetland habitats, shared with tern species of concern (particularly Black Tern), are subject to many sorts of modifications that would make them unsuitable for nesting (drainage, use for irrigation) and may also be subject to disturbance by boaters.

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Ewins, Peter J. and D. V. Weseloh. (1999). Little Gull (Hydrocoloeus minutus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Fransson, T., L. Jansson, T. Kolehmainen, C. Kroon, and T. Wenninger (2017). EURING list of longevity records for European birds.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

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

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