Herring gull (Larus argentatus)

Synonyms: Larus mongolicus, Larus smithsonianus, Larus vegae
French: Goéland argenté
GenusLarus (1)
SizeLength: 55 – 67 cm (2)
Wingspan: 135 – 145 cm (2)
Weight720 – 1500 g (2)
Top facts

The herring gull is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The quintessential ‘seagull’, the herring gull (Larus argentatus) is perhaps the most familiar seabird in the Northern Hemisphere (3) (4). Yet, distinguishing this species from a number of other gull species is somewhat challenging. Like many other gulls, it has an all-white head and neck, with a pale grey back and grey upperwings; however, it is the only gull with pink legs and black wing-tips with white spots (known as ‘mirrors’) (3) (5). It may also be identified by its heavy, slightly hooked bill with bold red tip (5). Outside of the breeding season, the adult herring gull’s white head and neck becomes streaked with brown, and the bill and the orange ring around the eyes fade in colour (2) (3). Juvenille herring gulls are mottled dark greyish-brown, and they undergo seven changes in plumage before adulthood (3) (4). The herring gull is a large, heavy-bodied gull with fully-webbed feet and a flattened forehead that gives it a ‘mean’ appearance (2) (5) (6). It is an extremely noisy bird and a number of vocalisations are produced, including the well-known raucous ‘laughing’ call (7).

The herring gull has a circumpolar distribution at northern latitudes, with the main areas of population being north-west Europe, eastern Arctic Russia and North America. It breeds across most of Canada and Alaska, as well as north-east USA, and much of the northern European coastline, as well as inland areas of Russia, Iceland, the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia (8). It may also breed at some inland lakes in Asia (3). Before the onset of winter, some herring gull populations migrate southwards to the southern USA, Central America, south-east China and Japan (3) (8).

The herring gull is an extremely versatile species capable of occupying a vast diversity of habitats. Typically, it is most abundant on large islands, and coastal or near-coastal areas, but it also forages far inland around large lakes, reservoirs, fields and rubbish dumps (3) (8). It also breeds in a range of habitats, including cliffs, beaches, rocky and grassy islands, gravel bars, salt-marshes and even on buildings (1).

The herring gull is a supreme opportunist and scavenger exploiting almost any available food source, including fish offal, refuse, bird chicks, small mammals, eggs, worms and invertebrates (2) (8). Smaller food items are swallowed whole, but larger and harder items are dropped from a height onto rocks to break them open (4). This powerful predator often forages by walking along the shoreline to look for submerged molluscs, but also pirates food from other predatory seabirds, catches fish at sea after plunge-diving into the water, or sits on the water, paddling its legs to propel the body forward, and dips its large beak into the water to catch unsuspecting prey (2) (3) (4). While at sea, the herring gull typically forages in large, widespread flocks that quickly gather around areas of high food abundance, often around feeding whales, dolphins, predatory fish and also fishing boats (3). The herring gull regularly drinks freshwater, but when this is unavailable it will drink saltwater, with excess salt expelled from the body through specialised glands above the eyes (4). 

The herring gull may breed in huge colonies of several thousand birds on cliffs, alone, or at the edge of large colonies of other breeding seabirds (8). Typically the male selects the nest site around mid-April, whilst defending it from other birds until a female is found with which to breed (3) (8). A small territory around this nesting site is defended from other breeding birds, usually by the male, and each season established pairs return to the same nest site to breed (3). The nest is a simple depression lined with feathers and vegetation on a cliff ledge or on the ground (8). Usually one to three eggs are laid and incubated for some 28 to 30 days (2) (4). The incubation duties are shared equally between the adult birds, although during times of high food availability, the male does most of the foraging and the female largely stays at the nest (2). The chicks fledge 40 to 45 days after hatching, becoming fully independent 1 to 2 weeks later. Most herring gulls first breed at around 5 years of age and may live for up to 32 years (2).   

Outside of the breeding season, the herring gull is a highly gregarious bird and gathers in huge flocks at favoured sites (8). Most adult birds remain close to the breeding site all year round, but the youngest birds tend to migrate southwards. This behaviour is most pronounced in the colder parts of the species’ range, and elsewhere, populations may remain fairly sedentary (3).

Today, the herring gull is a hugely abundant and widespread species with a global population that likely numbers several million birds. In some areas it is even considered a pest species, particularly near areas of human habitation and airports, and in some coastal areas where it out-competes rarer seabirds for nesting sites (8). However, it has not always been so abundant, and in North America during the 18th and 19th century the herring gull was harvested for its eggs and feathers, which were used in the hat-making trade, and the species was removed from large parts of its range (3) (4). Protection from such exploitation and an increase in food availability from bycatch discards and refuse heaps allowed the species to recover from previous declines, and the population now exceeds former numbers and is spreading southwards (3). There have been similar increases in Europe, except in the UK, where the population has declined by around 50 percent over recent decades due to unknown reasons (9). The herring gull is, however, susceptible to avian influenza and could become threatened by future outbreaks, and it is also vulnerable to oil pollution, pesticide contamination, and the destruction of food sources by overfishing (3) (8).  

As the herring gull is a widespread and abundant species that is increasing in number, it is not the target of any known conservation measures. In places where it is considered a pest species, control measures, such as the smashing of eggs and the poisoning of eggs with oil, are frequently used to create more nesting opportunities for other seabirds. However, until such measures are applied consistently, it is likely that the herring gull will continue to increase in number and range (3). 

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For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Information authenticated by the RSPB:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2010)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2001) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Pierotti, R.J. and Good, T.P. (1994) Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca: Available at:
  4. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Herring Gull (September, 2010)
  5. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (September, 2010)
  6. Herring Gull Larus argentatus – US Geological Survey (September, 2010)
  7. Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. and Grant, P.J. (1999) Collins Bird Guide. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, London.
  8. BirdLife International (September, 2010)
  9. Herring Gull Larus argentatus – JNCC (September, 2010)