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Article for November - December 2013

For Wildlife Watchers: Laughing Gull
by Rob Simbeck
photograph by Michael Foster

The laughing gull, common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is South Carolina’s only year-round resident.

Laughing GullIn the spring of 1848, the insects came. They moved from the Utah countryside into fields of grain planted earlier that year by Mormon settlers led west by Brigham Young. Now called Mormon crickets, they were actually katydids, but they called to mind nothing so much as the locusts that plagued Egypt in Exodus. There were millions of them, devouring everything in their path.

Then, in early June, the gulls arrived, also in great numbers. The settlers assumed the worst, but it was the insects rather than the wheat or oats that the birds were after, and they ate them in such quantities that ultimately the crops were saved.

There is still debate about the details of the episode, but many Mormons saw the timing as miraculous, and it is regarded to this day as “the miracle of the gulls.”

Utah’s appreciation for the California gull, which breeds on islands in the nearby Great Salt Lake, lasted. It is the state bird, and a monument in its honor stands outside the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Laughing Gull -
  Leucophaeus atricilla "shining white, black-tailed [juveniles]”

Description: A foot and a half in length, three-and-a-half-foot wingspan. In breeding plumage; black head, white neck and underparts, long red bill and sooty gray back and wings that are white-edged and end in black tips. In winter, its head is white with a large gray smudge..

Range and Habitat: Coastal. Nests from Long Island to Texas, in Mexico and the Caribbean, and northern South America. In South Carolina, on several protected islands, particularly on Deveaux Bank.

Reproduction: Monogamous. Nest generally hidden. Lined with or constructed of grasses and weeds. Three to four darkly splotched, olive-brown eggs incubated by both for twenty days. Fledges at forty to fifty days.

Viewing Tips: Common in many coastal areas.

That kind of esteem for seagulls was sorely lacking on the East Coast a century ago, and the history of these birds — there are seventeen species of gulls along the Atlantic seaboard and a dozen regularly reported in South Carolina — has been a troubled one.

Gulls were among many birds killed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for their feathers, used particularly in the millinery trade. The most common means was to shoot them on breeding grounds at the height of nesting season. The first effective state law prohibiting their slaughter was enacted in New Jersey in 1885, and by 1914, forty states protected them year-round.

Gulls aren’t merely seabirds, of course. They are well represented inland, where they can be found in farmers’ fields, eating worms and insects, in mall parking lots, picking up discards from the food court, and in and around landfills, dining on whatever’s edible, including rodents.

The laughing gull, common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, is South Carolina’s only year-round resident. It nests, according to Janet Thibault, a wildlife technician with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, “on protected islands free of mammalian predators, which is also where many of the seabird colonies [which can include gulls, terns, pelicans and others] are located.” They include Marsh Island in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Crab Bank and Tomkins Island.

“The majority, though,” adds DNR Seabird and Shorebird Project Leader Felicia Sanders, “nest on Deveaux Bank, where we estimated about five years ago that there were about 20,000 pairs.”

That success, unfortunately, is problematic for some other species.

“DNR biologists are concerned about the high number of laughing gulls nesting in South Carolina, because they depredate chicks and eggs of seabird species like terns and skimmers that are of conservation concern and at very low numbers,” says Sanders.

The laughing gull nest, constructed by both male and female, is generally concealed within thick vegetation. It can be a hollow in the sand lined with grass and stems, or a larger, woven structure. The female lays three to four darkly splotched, olive-brown eggs that both she and the male incubate for twenty days. As with other gulls, the young can walk within a few hours. The adults feed them by regurgitating food, and at least one parent will guard them until they fledge at forty to fifty days.

Known for its laugh-like call, this is a smaller gull, a foot and a half in length, with a three-and-a-half-foot wingspan. Striking in breeding plumage, it has a black head, white neck and underparts, a long red bill and sooty gray back and wings that are white-edged and end in black tips. In winter, its head is white with a large gray smudge. It feeds on small fish at the surface and, like other gulls, will engage in occasional food-swiping, known officially as kleptoparasitism.

“I’ve actually seen laughing gulls land on pelicans’ heads and steal fish from their mouths as the pelicans sit on the water to swallow their prey,” says Thibault. “They are very efficient thieves!”

The other gulls common to the state are winter residents, with ring-billed and herring gulls the most common, followed by great black-backed and Bonaparte’s gulls. Telling them apart involves noting all of their field marks, as they have both breeding and non-breeding plumage, and the appearance of juveniles can change with each molt until they reach adult plumage at three to four years.

The ring-billed the size of the laughing gull, is white-headed and yellow-legged, with light gray wings with black tips and a black ring near the tip of its bill. It nests on the ground on river or lake islands or peninsulas in a wide area straddling the U.S./Canadian border. The slightly larger and similar-looking herring gull (it has a red dot on the underside of the bill), breeds across Canada and Alaska. Both often nest in colonies with ducks, terns and other gulls.

The great black-backed is among the largest of all gulls, at two-and-a-half feet in length with a five-foot wingspan, weighing up to four pounds. It is a white-headed gull with black wings, pink legs and a yellow bill with a red spot near the tip. On the coast, these species fly along the shoreline in loose groups, picking up small fish, invertebrates and scraps from the surface, sometimes diving from shallow heights, They will also walk along and feed on the tidal flats.

When not feeding, they will often preen on the beach or stand idly in groups on the sand. They can jump into the air and take flight quickly, catching the wind with those long wings, and their flight is mostly a matter of riding thermals and shore breezes, circling until they see food.

Gulls are monogamous, in most cases for life, and often return to the same location within the same colony each year. Those colonies offer relative safety, as birds can mob would-be predators. It is protection that works well in dealing with non-human predators, and now that we have a history of protecting them, we can much more readily appreciate these birds that found such fans and such lasting appreciation 165 years ago in Utah.

—Rob Simbeck

Rob Simbeck is an award-winning freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.

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© 2013 South Carolina Wildlife Magazine, November - December 2013 - www.scwildlife.com 

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