Herring Gull

Larus argentatus

(c) Glen Tepke
  • LARIDAE
  • Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers
  • Charadriiformes
  • Gaviota plateada, Apipizca
  • Goéland argenté
Introduction
Herring Gulls are familiar to many North Americans as companions on the golf course and fish docks, as flocks at landfills, and as longtime subjects of science. Commonplace as these quintessential "sea gulls" are, they continue to teach us about tool use in animals, evolution's complex and rapid processes, and the concentration of pollutants in our shared environment.
(c) Glen Tepke
Appearance Description
On average, Herring Gulls weigh 2.5 pounds and measure 25 inches long, with a 58-inch wingspan. This large, white-headed gull has a stout bill and distinctive voice. From about March to September, the adult Herring Gull’s body plumage is white, and its gray wings are tipped with black. In winter, its head and neck are streaked with brownish-gray. The yellow bill has a red spot on the lower mandible just before the tip. The eyes are straw colored, and the legs are pinkish. Herring Gulls mature in four years, and each immature plumage is complex and variable, requiring intensive study from observers to master them.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Herring Gulls occur over much of the Northern Hemisphere between the tropics and the Arctic Circle. In North America, the Herring Gull breeds from the Aleutian Islands southeastward through the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic Coast from the Carolinas to Newfoundland. Since the 1950s, its breeding range has expanded southward from Maine, once its southern limit. In winter, these large, white-headed gulls concentrate in the Great Lakes region and along the Atlantic, Gulf, and California coasts. During migration, Herring Gulls can be anywhere in North America.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Herring Gulls are always on or very near large bodies of open fresh or salt water, including bays, estuaries, lakes, large ponds or impoundments, reservoirs, and rivers. Nests are built on islands made of rock, sand, or dredged material. These large gulls look for food near shore at sea, along mud and sand flats, rocky shores, landfills, fish and other food processing plants, farm fields, and parks.
Feeding
The omnivorous Herring Gull eats mussels, squid, fish, crabs, other birds and their chicks and eggs, earthworms, insects, and human refuse. It swallows food whole when possible, but can peck open thin shells or drop thicker ones onto hard surfaces. Herring Gulls forage on water or land, and can dive short distances after prey. Fishing boats and fish docks provide important feeding areas. An intelligent and persistent predator, this gull can scavenge, use whales to find fish or squid, or steal food from other birds. One scientist observed a Herring Gull using bread to attract goldfish.
Reproduction
Starting in early spring, Herring Gulls form monogamous pairs for the duration of the breeding season. A variety of displays, including begging and head tossing, serve to bond pairs. In a colony, often with other gull species, the male establishes a territory with vocalizations and physical displays like ritualized grass pulling and charging. Herring Gull pairs cooperate in all phases of breeding; they choose a nest site 12 to 30 feet from other nests, press a hollow into the ground, and fill it with vegetation, feathers, and flotsam. Prior to egg laying, the male supplements the female’s diet with regurgitated food. The female usually lays three olive to green eggs with brown and black markings, which are incubated for about 30 days.
 

 

The black-spotted gray chicks can walk within a day. Young chicks peck at the red spot on the adults’ beak to stimulate regurgitation of fish, crustaceans, squid, and insects. When the last-hatched chick is not fed enough, it sometimes leaves the territory. Neighboring gulls may either kill or adopt it. Herring Gulls fledge in about seven weeks and are usually fed for a total of 12 weeks. Juveniles sometimes stay with a parent throughout the winter, but most young Herring Gulls form loose flocks and move south in the fall.
Migration
When breeding ends, both adults and young leave their immediate nesting sites, but adult Herring Gulls stay in the general area year round, providing open water and food are available. Herring Gulls in the Canadian Atlantic Provinces shift southward into New England, and large flocks comprised of all age groups are found offshore in winter. Young gulls migrate short distances to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 2,800,000
  • 370,000
Population Status Trends
One of nine subspecies, the North American Herring Gull may soon be recognized as distinct. Christmas Bird Counts have recorded moderate losses, while Breeding Bird Surveys between 1966 and 2003 show significant losses in northern populations. Increases in southern populations during this period do not offset the declines.
 
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Herring Gull populations have the ability to recover quickly. After feather and egg hunters nearly extirpated it from the United States in the early 1900s, the 16,000 Herring Gulls confined to Maine in 1935 expanded southward into Virginia and by 1985 numbered over 200,000. The more recent decline of North American Herring Gulls have not yet triggered official concern among conservationists and wildlife managers. If the North American Herring Gull (L. a. smithsonianus) represents a distinct species, as some researchers have hypothesized, its conservation status may need reevaluation. Until then, local concentrations of Herring Gulls are sometimes viewed as a nuisance around fish processing sites and landfills. Secure waste management, and ironically, overfishing appear to regulate this gull’s population more effectively than the destruction of its eggs and nesting sites.
 

Like humans, Herring Gulls are at the top of the aquatic food chain. Their fish-rich diet concentrates chemical pollutants like DDT, which once contributed to the Bald Eagle’s listing as Endangered. The Great Lakes Herring Gull Egg Contaminants Monitoring Program, administered by Environment Canada, has recorded the decline of DDT in these gulls since 1971. Unfortunately, significant levels of other chemicals like dieldrin and dioxins have persisted. Herring Gulls illustrate the long-term costs of environmental contamination and the need for constant vigilance over the health of our aquatic ecosystems.

What You Can Do
Embrace winter at a winter birding festival. Find Herring Gulls among many other species at the annual Niagara River International Gull Festival in December, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada; or the annual Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival every January in California.
 
Support the robust regulation of North America’s water and become familiar with the latest revisions of federal regulations, like the Clean Water Act. Share your ideas and concerns with your state and federal representatives, who can help enact legislation to keep our water cleaner.
 
For more actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Henry, Pierre-Yves and Jean-Christophe Aznar. “Tool-use in Charadrii: Active Bait-Fishing by a Herring Gull.” Waterbirds 29:2 (2006) 233-234.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.
 
Pierotti, R. J., and T. P. Good. 1994. Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 124 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists’ Union.
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2000.
Conservation Status References
Henry, Pierre-Yves and Jean-Christophe Aznar. “Tool-use in Charadrii: Active Bait-Fishing by a Herring Gull.” Waterbirds 29:2 (2006) 233–-234.
 
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). Alaska Seabird Information Series. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska. 2006. 2 pages.
 
Pierotti, R. J., and T. P. Good. 1994. Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). In The Birds of North America, No. 124 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists’ Union.
 
Ryckman, D. P., D. V. Chip Weseloh, and C. A. Bishop. “Contaminants in Herring Gull Eggs from the Great Lakes: 25 Years of Monitoring Levels and Effects.” Great Lakes Fact Sheet. 10 October 2005. Canadian Wildlife Service, Ontario Region, Environment Canada.
 

 

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, and J. Fallon. 2005. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 - 2005. Version 6.2.2006. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
 

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds.New York. 2000. Alfred A. Knopf,