New York Natural Heritage Program
Laughing Gull
Leucophaeus atricilla Linnaeus, 1758
Birds

Identifying Characteristics [-]
The Laughing Gull is a medium-sized bird 40-46 cm in length with a long wingspan averaging 102 cm (Peterson 1980; National Geographic Society 1999). They are easily identified by their black head and grey back and wings that blend into their black primary wing feathers. The rest of their body parts are white, with some pink on the breast when the birds arrive at their breeding grounds, which gradually fades away. The bill is brownish with a bright red-orange tip. Legs and feet are a deep red (Burger 1996). During the Nonbreeding season, the black head of the adults changes from black to white with grayish streaks, the white underparts take on gray undertones, the dark grey back and wings become lighter (National Geographic Society 1999), and the color of the bill, legs, and feet become black (Burger 1996). Juveniles are generally brownish grey in color with the feathers of the wings, outlined in white that resembles a scale-like pattern. The tail feathers are gray and are edged in white. Hatchlings are born covered in down that is light brown in color with the underside a lighter brown. The down is mottled with brownish black spots. Eggs are smooth, oval in shape, have a mean length of 50 mm, and a mean weight of 40 g. The color varies from pale cream to olive brown with dark splotches. Laughing Gulls nest on the ground. The nests are composed of salt marsh vegetation such as reeds and grasses. The average size is about 14 cm wide, 6 cm deep, and 28 cm high (Bent 1921, Burger 1996). Laughing Gulls have a variety of calls, with the most common ones being the long call (sounding like kee-ahh, kee-ahhh), defense call (a series sounding like kakakaka), and alarm call (sounding like kuk-kuk-kuk). Head tosses often accompany these calls (Burger 1996).

Characters Most Useful for Identification [-]
The black head and lack of a white band separating the black primaries from the rest of the grey wings of the adult Laughing Gull in breeding plumage is the characteristic most useful in identifying this species.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification [-]
Laughing Gulls can be easily identified when the adults are in their breeding plumage.

Behavior [-]
Laughing Gulls arrive at their breeding grounds a month before breeding, roughly mid-April. Pair bonds are formed just before arrival to the breeding colony. Territories are quickly established soon after arriving and nest construction begins with both sexes working together. The male typically gathers nest material while the female arranges it. Eggs are laid down shortly after with three eggs making up a full clutch. Incubation begins when the second egg is laid down, with both male and female taking turns incubating them. Chicks start to hatch around 23 days after the start of incubation. Hatching is asynchronous, with the first two chicks being hours apart and the third chick hatching about a day later (Bent 1921; Burger 1996). Laughing Gulls typically forage at low tide during the day, and sometimes forage during high tide at night (Bernhardt et al 2010). While foraging for flying insects, they exhibit a behavior called “hawking”, meaning they take their prey on the wing (Sweet 1993).

Diet [-]
Laughing Gulls feed on a variety of invertebrates including beetles, ants, flies, worms, spiders, and grasshoppers (Bernhardt et al 2010). On occasion, they will steal prey from the mouths of Brown Pelicans and eat the eggs of terns (Bent 1921).
Laughing Gull Images
click to enlarge
The Best Time to See
In New York, Laughing Gulls begin to arrive at their breeding grounds in late March to early April and remain throughout the breeding season. Dispersal from breeding grounds begins in late summer. They begin their fall migration to their wintering grounds in October (Burger 1996). Nonbreeding Laughing Gulls have been spotted inland throughout the year near the Great Lakes and have also been observed along Long Island during the winter (Bull 1985).
J F M A M J J A S O N D
Present Breeding
The time of year you would expect to find Laughing Gull present (blue shading) and breeding (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Franklin's Gull (Larus pipixcan)
    The Franklin‘s Gull in breeding plumage is very similar to the Laughing Gull except that it is smaller in size and has a white band separating the dark primary feathers from the rest of the grey wing 9Burger 1996).