LAUGHING GULL Larus atricilla

Art by Nancy McGowan

Larus atricilla

The Laughing Gull is a common coastal species that nests in colonies along North America’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Mexico’s Pacific Coast, and on some Caribbean islands (Bongiorno 1970, Oberholser 1974, Burger 1996). It has the distinction of being the only gull species known to regularly breed in Texas (Oberholser 1974, Peterson 1980, Coe 1994). Laughing Gulls winter in the southern tip of Texas as well as along the Atlantic Coast south from North Carolina through Texas, in Florida, and in Central and South America. Thus, in different parts of Texas, these gulls are both winter and year-round residents. Therefore, this species’ unique courtship displays and laugh-like calls, its beautiful breeding plumage with an elegant black hood and white eye-crescents, and its less distinctive winter and juvenile plumages may all be observed in Texas.

Interpretation of possible and probable evidence of Laughing Gull breeding in Texas can be complicated by the year-round residency of this species and the considerable overlap of its winter and breeding ranges. Oberholser’s (1974) range map shows breeding records localized along the Gulf Coast. His fall and winter records completely overlap these nesting locations and extend further north and west. The less detailed range maps found in popular field guides show either a year-round range or completely overlapping winter and breeding ranges for Laughing Gulls in Texas (Peterson 1980, Coe 1994). Thus, confirmation of breeding was desirable for spring and early summer sightings of this species.

DISTRIBUTION: All confirmed breeding records of Oberholser (1974) and the TBBAP were located along the Gulf Coast. Nonbreeding summer birds are often observed 30-60 km (19-37 mi) inland from coastal breeding areas (Burger 1996), and breeding Laughing Gulls commonly travel up to 40 km (25 mi) inland to find food suitable for consumption by their dependent nestlings (Dosch 1996). Individuals observed at inland locations during the breeding season are therefore likely to be nonbreeding birds or gulls with dependent young in a coastal nest. Sightings reported by Oberholser (1974) were over a wider range than those of the TBBAP. The earlier study recorded more inland and northern sightings and less than half of these were from fall or winter months.

SEASONAL OCCURRENCE: The Laughing Gull is a year-round resident along the Gulf Coast of Texas. Some sightings have been recorded further inland during all seasons (Oberholser 1974) and additional wintering populations may be found throughout the southernmost portion of the state, the Rio Grande Valley (TBBAP region 7, Burger 1996). Oberholser (1974) reported that individuals also wander “inland irregularly through eastern half, where they are rare to casual; accidental at Big Bend.” Thus, while Laughing Gulls are most common along the coast during the breeding season, sightings in other locations are possible, though rare, throughout the year. Of 259 records obtained by the TBBAP, over 75% were records of confirmed breeding. All of these were along the coast.

The breeding season for Laughing Gulls is rather lengthy. Oberholser (1974) reported egg dates from 8 April through 7 July for birds in Texas while additional studies indicate laying dates as early as 1 April in other locations (see Burger 1996). The TBBAP data document nests with eggs over a shorter time period, 12 May to 17 June, although fledglings were found from 1 June through 13 July.

BREEDING HABITAT: Laughing Gull colonies range in size from only a few breeding pairs to as many as 25,000 (Schreiber et al. 1979, Jenkins et al. 1989, Burger and Shisler 1980). Colony site selection is dependent upon available habitats (Burger 1996). Colonies in Texas are on salt marshes and dry land (Oberholser 1974, Burger 1996). Nests vary from simple, lined hollows in the sand to relatively large, well-made structures of interwoven salt marsh grasses (Oberholser 1974, Harrison 1975).

Laughing Gull chicks are semi-precocial at hatching, and although they are able to leave the nest after a few days, they remain in its vicinity, usually have no access to fresh water, and are completely dependent upon their parents for food. Although Laughing Gull colonies are commonly located on coastal islands, adults nesting on salt marsh islands in New Jersey fed their young predominantly foods obtained from inland sources (Dosch 1996, 1997). It is not yet known if similar foraging behavior occurs in Texas.

STATUS: Although the total number of Laughing Gulls in North America remained relatively stable from 1977 to 1990, local populations are increasing in many parts of the United States (Belant and Dolbeer 1993). National counts by the Breeding Bird Survey indicate an increase in the mean number of Laughing Gulls per route from 1966 through 1994 (Burger 1996, Sauer et al. 1996). Breeding Bird Survey data indicate that Laughing Gulls in Texas are increasing in the northern and southern portions of their breeding range while decreasing in the center portion (Sauer et al. 1996). For Texas, Belant and Dolbeer (1993) report an annual decrease of 1.8% between 1977 and 1990 with 64,595 pairs of Laughing Gulls present in 1990.

Recent changes in regional populations of these and other gulls may be tied to changes in availability of anthropogenic resources, such as food wastes available at landfills (Belant and Dolbeer 1993, Belant et al. 1993, Burger 1996). Diets of both adult and nestling Laughing Gulls in New Jersey were found to contain large amounts of such foods (Caccamise et al. 1995, Dosch 1997), and Oberholser (1974) reported the consumption of anthropogenic food by adults in Texas. Thus, it is likely that changing anthropogenic resources are influencing Laughing Gull populations throughout their range, including Texas

Text by Jerald J. Dosch (ca. 1997)

Texas Breeding Bird Atlas map

Literature Cited

Belant, J. L., and R. A. Dolbeer. 1993. Population status of nesting Laughing Gulls in the United States. Am. Birds 47: 220-224.

Bongiorno, S. F. 1970. Nest-site selection by adult Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla). Animal Behavior 18: 434-444.

Burger, J. 1996. Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla). In The birds of North America, No. 225 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Burger, J. and J.  Shisler. 1980. Colony and nest site selection in Laughing Gulls in response to tidal flooding. Condor 82: 251-258.

Caccamise, D. F., L. M. Reed, L.  DeLay, K.  Bennett, and J. J. Dosch. 1995. Studies of bird airport associations directed at mitigation of bird strike hazards. Part I: Avian pest problems at Atlantic City International Airport. Prepd for Dept. Transport., FAA, Atlantic City International Airport/FAA Technical Center.

Coe, J. E. 1994. Eastern birds. Golden Press, New York.

Dosch, J. J. 1997. Diet of nestling Laughing Gulls in southern New Jersey. Colonial Waterbirds 20: 273-281.

Dosch, J. J. 1996. Influence of nestling diet and salt tolerance on adult movement and foraging patterns: field studies of the Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla). Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

Harrison, H. H. 1975. A field guide to Eastern birds’ nests. Houghton Mifflin, Boston MA.

Jenkins, C. D., Jr., L. J. Niles, and J. Wessel. 1989. Survey of colonial nesting waterbird species on the Atlantic Coast of New Jersey. Unpub. rep., New Jersey Dept Environ. Protec.

Oberholser, H. C. 1974. The bird life of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Peterson, R .T. 1980. A field guide to the birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston MA.

Sauer, J. R., B. G. Peterjohn, S.  Schwartz, and J. E. Hines. 1996. The North American Breeding Bird Survey home page. Version 95.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

Schreiber, E. A., R. W. Schreiber, and J.  J. Dinsmore. 1979. Breeding biology of Laughing Gulls in Florida. Part I: nesting, egg, and incubation parameters. Bird Banding 50: 304-321.

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