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The shrieking flocks of seagulls so often identified with a day at the beach are simply gulls of the bird family Laridae to the scientists who study the earth’s feathered inhabitants. Of the 50 or so gull species known worldwide, about half find homes in North America but few limit their range to seashore resorts. Many gull species consider local landfills, golf courses or mall parking lots fine places to raise a family, as long as food and water are plentiful.
Which Gull is That?
Ornithologists use shape, size, color and region to identify gull species. Naming an immature gull can be tricky, though, since most have different feather colors and patterns than their adult counterparts. Juveniles typically come in shades of beige mixed with gray. It may take two to four years to grow those varying feather shades of white, gray or black common to gulls. Leg color, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is another useful tool for identifying your neighborhood gull. Large gull types, such as the herring gull, usually have pink legs and feet. Medium birds, including the ring-billed gull, have yellow legs. Smaller gulls like the aptly named black-legged kittiwake have red or black legs.
Spotting a Herring Gull
Likely the most familiar gull to beach-goers in North America, these large gulls with broad chests and stubby tails have white heads and underbellies. Gray wings tipped in black span approximately 57 inches across. Herring gulls (Larus argentatus) enjoy winters along the coasts. They also gather in large flocks around landfills or inland reservoirs. Summer breeding season heralds a migration pattern that takes them north toward Canada. Herring gulls are opportunistic feeders with a varied diet. They will snatch fresh catch from a fisherman’s net, pick through trash for edible morsels or help themselves to your picnic goodies should the opening arise.
The California gull is difficult to differentiate from his larger herring cousin due to similar coloring, but he sports a dark ring at the end of his upper beak and a red spot at the tip of his lower beak that the herring gull lacks. This yellow-legged fellow prefers inland habitats to life on the shore and often establishes nesting colonies on small islands in lakes and rivers. The ring-billed gull is nearly identical to California gulls in coloring and size but lacks the red spot on the mandible. The laughing gull is another medium-sized gull with a black head, dark gray wings and a white chest and belly. Taking three years to reach adulthood, laughing gulls eventually grow 14 to 16 inches long and have wingspans stretch up to 43 inches.
Wintering in large numbers along the Pacific Coast, the mew gull (Larus canus) carries gray and white markings similar to the much larger herring gull. As he walks, the mew gull has a curious head-bobbing habit, which distinguishes him from other gulls. The petite Franklin’s gull spends spring and summer in the southeast portion of Oregon and has a call that mimics a cat with a nasal disorder. Since he prefers insects to seafood, farmers appreciate having this small gull around. The black-legged kittiwake is a small, ocean-loving gull. Rarely seen inland at landfills or in open pastures, kittiwakes are often spotted in the company of pelicans and other seabirds during feeding time on open water.
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