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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.

Keys to identification Help

Gulls
Gulls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The California Gull is a medium-sized gull with a round head. The bill is slender compared to other gull species. In flight the wings are long and pointed.

  • Color Pattern

    Breeding adult California Gulls are white-headed gulls with a medium gray back, yellow legs, and a dark eye. Nonbreeding adults have brown streaking on the head. Adults have a yellow bill with small black ring and a red spot on the lower mandible—brighter on breeding gulls. In their first year, they are mottled brown and white and often have a paler face. The bill is pink with a black tip and the legs are pinkish. Second-year California Gulls are also mottled brown but begin to show gray on the back. They have a dark eye and bluish legs. Third-year gulls look very similar to adults.

  • Behavior

    California Gulls are strong, nimble fliers and opportunistic foragers; they forage on foot, from the air, and from the water. These social gulls breed in colonies and mix with other gull species along the coast in winter.

  • Habitat

    California Gulls breed on sparsely vegetated islands and levees in inland lakes and rivers. They forage in any open area where they can find food including garbage dumps, scrublands, pastures, orchards, meadows, and farms. In the winter they forage along the Pacific Coast and use mostly marine areas including mudflats, estuaries, deltas, and beaches.

Range Map Help

California Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    California Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Medium sized gull with round head and long bill
    • Medium-dark gray back and wings
    • Long yellow bill with black band and red spot near tip
    • Bright white head in breeding season
    • © Robinsegg, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 2009
  • Nonbreeding adult

    California Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Long yellow bill with dark band and red spot near tip
    • Extensive black at wing-tips
    • Dark streaking on crown/nape of nonbreeding adult
    • © Ganesh Jayaraman, Half Moon Bay, California, February 2010
  • First summer

    California Gull

    First summer
    • Medium-sized gull
    • Dusky gray body contrasts with mostly white head
    • Long, pale pink bill with black tip
    • © Tim Lenz, California, August 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult

    California Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Medium-sized gull
    • Dark gray streaking on crown and nape in winter
    • Yellow-green legs
    • Long yellow bill with black band and red spot near tip
    • © Christopher L. Wood, California, September 2007
  • Nonbreeding adult

    California Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Medium-sized gull with rounded head and long bill
    • Yellow-green legs
    • Black band and red spot near tip of bill
    • © Ron Kube, Port Hardy, British Columbia, Canada, August 2012

Similar Species

Similar Species

Herring, Western, and Glaucous-winged Gulls are larger than California Gulls with heavier bills, and this is often the best way to distinguish them. Herring Gulls that are 3 and 4 years old have a paler gray back and pink (not yellow) legs. Juveniles and 1- and 2-year-old Herring Gulls in flight show a pale panel on the inner flight feathers that similar aged California Gulls lack. Three- and four-year-old Western Gulls have a darker gray back and pink (not yellow) legs. First and second year Westerns have darker bills that are not noticeably two-toned as they are on younger California Gulls. Glaucous-winged Gulls have paler wingtips than California Gulls, ranging from light tan on younger gulls to light gray on older gulls. Ring-billed Gulls and Mew Gulls are smaller with thinner bills than California Gulls, key features that help separate them. Adult Ring-billed Gulls lack the red spot on the lower mandible and they have pale eyes whereas California Gulls have dark eyes. Juveniles and younger Ring-billed Gulls are much paler overall than California Gulls and have a thinner dark tail band instead of an all-dark tail. Mew Gulls have a dainty, black-tipped bill—shorter and thinner than California with no red spot.

Regional Differences

Two different subspecies of California Gull exist. The gulls that breed in the Great Basin region of the western United States are smaller and darker backed, and those breeding in the Great Plains are larger and paler.

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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