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Laughing Gull
Leucophaeus atricilla
– Family
Authors: Burger, Joanna

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Adult Laughing Gull, breeding plumage
Juvenile Laughing Gull, Cape Hatteras, NC, 17 Sep 2005.
Figure 1. Distribution in North and Middle America and the Caribbean.

Editor’s Note: Studies of mitochondrial DNA in the subfamily Larinae have suggested that the heretofore broadly defined genus Larus is paraphyletic. Reclassification of this genus now places Laughing Gull in the genus Leucophaeus. See the 49th Supplement to the AOU Check-list of North American Birds for details. Future revisions of this account will account for this change.

The Laughing Gull is a small, black-hooded gull that nests in colonies of up to 25,000 pairs on sandy or rocky shores and on salt-marsh islands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, as well as on some Caribbean islands, the Gulf of California, and along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Its light, buoyant flight and lilting, laughing call are a familiar sight and sound along the coast. This species has adapted well to the presence of people, gathering around picnic groups for handouts, following fishing boats, or waiting about docks for fishermen. For many people along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the laughing call and delicate head tosses of this lovely gull are harbingers of spring. In mid-April pairs touch down on sandy beaches or salt-marsh wrack to begin courtship, their dark gray mantles silky and soft, their vibrant black heads gleaming in the sun, their dark eyes ringed with narrow white eye-crescents, and their exaggerated head tosses and graceful Facing-away Displays, a courtship dance all their own.

This gull is susceptible to human disturbance and predation throughout its breeding cycle. It avoids mammalian predators by selecting small islands exposed to winter washovers which prevent establishment of permanent mammal populations. Colony and nest-site selection is a compromise between nesting on islands high enough to avoid tidal flooding and small and low enough to avoid predation and competition with larger gulls.

Unlike many larger gulls, Laughing Gulls seldom steal the eggs or chicks of other birds.

After an extensive period of postbreeding wandering up and down the coast, East Coast Laughing Gulls migrate south down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to South America; Pacific Coast breeders disperse northward to the Salton Sea in southern California and migrate south to winter from southern Mexico to Peru. Here the birds seek habitats similar to those chosen on their breeding grounds—harbors, estuaries, and coastal lagoons. Many remain in the southern United States during the winter, feeding on fish, crustaceans, worms, carrion, and garbage.

Extirpated from many coastal colonies in the late 1800s and early 1900s by eggers and the millinery trade, the Laughing Gull expanded its range and numbers early in the twentieth century only to be devastated later by competition with larger gulls expanding their range southward. Today the Laughing Gull is increasing in much of its range, recently nesting in New York State for the first time in 100 years. There and elsewhere, it has adapted to feeding on landfills and mowed fields surrounding airports, posing a hazard to aircraft.