Laughing gull (Larus atricilla)
|Size||Length: 39 - 46 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 102 - 107 cm (2)
|Weight||240 - 400 g (2)|
The laughing gull is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The laughing gull (Larus atricilla) is a familiar bird of North American coasts with a distinctive appearance and almost hysterical laughing-like call (3). A small, black-hooded gull, this species has a grey back and grey wings, as well as a white breast and tail, a dark red bill and reddish-black legs. During the breeding season, the laughing gull has a distinctive black cap with narrow white crescents around the eyes, and will often have a suffusion of pink on the normally white breast. At other times of the year, the cap is lost and the head turns white, except for a residual dark patch behind the eye (4).
Before reaching maturity, juvenile laughing gulls undergo several moults, with plumage changing from light brown, with pale edged feathers and black primaries and secondaries, to having a whiter head, a grey back and a dusky breast (2) (4) (5).
In the summer, the laughing gull breeds along the north-eastern coast of America, before migrating southwards to Central America and the northern coasts of South America. It is found year round in the Caribbean and is an occasional visitor to much of Europe and Australia (2) (4).
The laughing gull is a strictly coastal inhabitant, breeding on vegetated sandy beaches, salt marshes, and on rocky or sandy islands (2) (4).
Gulls in general are opportunistic feeders, and the laughing gull is no exception. It gathers at rubbish dumps to feed on scraps, follows tractors to catch disturbed insects and follows fishing boats to feed on discards. The laughing gull also pirates food from other bird species, including the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), from which the laughing gull steals from its food pouch. In Delaware, the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus) breeding season provides a plentiful supply of food for the laughing gull, as it feeds on the abundant eggs (2).
Breeding from late April in the southern colonies and from late May in the northern colonies, the laughing gull arrives at its breeding sites around a month before breeding to establish a territory and a nest site. Upon arrival, the male laughing gull soon begins courting females with displays and offerings of fish, and this may last for up to two weeks. This courtship strategy not only helps to establish a pair bond, also provides the females with additional energy for egg production. A nest is built on elevated ground to prevent the nest from being dragged to sea at high tide (4) (6). Typically, three eggs are laid and incubated by both the male and female for up to 28 days. Whilst one bird incubates the eggs, the other forages for food and returns every three to four hours. Once the chicks have hatched, the adult birds alternate between guarding the young and foraging. The adults do not bring prey back whole, instead regurgitating the food for the chicks (4).
As an opportunistic species that has adapted very well to human presence, the laughing gull has an extremely large range and a large population that is ever increasing in number (1). Its numbers have increased at such a rate that culls of the laughing gull have been organised to control its numbers, especially for those populations nesting near to airfields, which pose a threat to aircraft. However, at some locations the laughing gull is being outcompeted for nesting sites by larger gulls which have also increased in number, such as the herring gull (Larus argentatus) (4).
While the laughing gull has not been the target of any known conservation measures, it is afforded protection by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which prohibits the killing of the laughing gull or the destruction of its nests or eggs without special permission (4).
More information on the laughing gull and other bird species:
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- Incubate: to keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone.
- Primaries: in birds, the main flight feathers projecting along the outer edge of the wing.
- Secondaries: in birds, the shorter flight feathers projecting along the inner edge of the wing.
- Territory: an area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a colony.
IUCN Red List (September, 2010)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Laughing gull (September, 2010)
Burger, J. (1996) Laughing gull (Larus atricilla). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
- Burger, J. (1996) A Naturalist Along the Jersey Shore. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, USA.
BirdLife International (September, 2010)