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Laughing Gull Larus atricilla atricilla 

Laughing Gull

At a glance

Only gull nesting in West Indies region

Known to prey on eggs and chicks of other seabirds

Primarily a coastal species, but somewhat pelagic in winter.

Feeding generalist, exploits human garbage and discarded fisheries by-catch.



Smallish gull [38-43 cm (15-17 inches) in length]. Plumage variable both seasonally and by age-class. Breeding season adults with black heads, dark wing-tips, and white tails. Most confusion regarding this species will be in separating them from Franklin’s gulls (which occur mainly in the Gulf of Mexico). Distinctive laughing call.  No confusion should occur in identification of adult birds in summer plumage as it is the only black-headed gull likely to be found in marine environments in the Western North Atlantic.


Can live approximately 20 years. White breast and tails. Breeding adults have all black head, winter adults have various amounts of white on head.


Lack black hoods of breeding adults. Dusky breast and flanks, distinctive tail band. 

Alternative names

French: Goeland atricille

Spanish: Guanaguanare.


Probably most closely related to Franklin’s Gull. Two subspecies are recognized. L. a. atiricalla breeds in the West Indies and South America, L. a. megalopterus in North America. The latter also winters in the West Indies region (band returns from Cuba, but certainly occurs in other areas as well).

Likely locations

Near coastal areas, also inland at landfills, fields and parking lots where food scraps are available. Anchored or moored boats with passengers who feed the birds and enjoy "Laughing Gull whitewash." Follows ships and fishing boats.


An abundant species, breeding in Atlantic from Maine south to Florida, throughout the Bahamas and West Indies, Gulf of Mexico, Mexico and northern South American coast. Winters in coastal areas within its breeding range . Central American (including Baja peninsula) and South American coasts and at sea from Carolinas southward. Winters inland in Florida and Central America.  Rare in as a wintering species in Bermuda. During the summer restricted to coastal areas, during the winter often occurs in flocks in open ocean environments.

Laughing Gulls in the West Indies


At sea

Primarily coastal and beach scavenger. Does not venture far to sea except in winter when differences in air and sea surface temperatures provide for extra lift, allowing them to travel with less energy expenditure. Laughing Gulls feed of a wide range of surface organisms and are effective marine and coastal scavengers. They follow ships and forms feeding flocks around fishing operations. The species has been reported as long-line by-catch in the western North Atlantic.

At the nest

Colonies are in low flat areas with scattered low to dense vegetation. Vegetation provides some protection from sun and lessens visual contact with neighboring pairs. Begin breeding at three years of age. Courtship begins in April, and most eggs are laid by the end of May. Ground nests are made of grasses and other plant material including Sargassum and various marine plants. 2-3 brownish spotted eggs. Incubation 22-25 days, fledging at about 60 days.  Colonies will move from year to year if overly disturbed. Colonies disperse 2-3 weeks after young can fly.

Current Population 

Northeastern and mid Atlantic states 64,483 pairs (Buckley and Buckley 1984)
Southeastern US 197,873 pairs (Clapp and Buckley 1984)
Bahamas and West Indies 5,000-10,000 pairs (Chardine et al. 2000)
Mexico and Northern South America ca 1,000 pairs (vanHalewyn and Norton 1984)

Total: 168,356 to 173,356 pairs.

Kushlan et al., 2002 report 528,000 to 538,000 breeders for the Americas (and 264,000 to 269,000 pairs in Western Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and West Indies). This latter number is probably more accurate as the species has greatly expanded in numbers in the last few decades, and more seabird inventories have been conducted since the early 80s when the last published information was made available.

Conservation Status

Common through most of its North American range, populations increasing primarily because of current methods of waste disposal. At least three times more common than any other seabird nesting in southeastern United States. In many areas this gull is detrimental to other seabirds, eating eggs and young and competing for food and nesting sites. The draft Southeast (US) regional waterbird plan considers the Laughing Gull a problem species possibly requiring large scale control to protect other species vulnerable to its predation. In the West Indies, some populations have declined as a result of development or egging, while others are increasing because of subsidized feeding as a result of garbage and fishing activities. 

Conservation Needs

Currently no conservation management needed to enhance expanding population. On one hand some local populations need protecting from egging, introduced predators and waterfront development. On the other hand, these birds cause problems for some locally nesting seabirds that are of immediate conservation concern. In fact, gull control programs may be warranted in specific situations if they are consuming the chicks of seabirds that are of regional conservation priority.

Protection and management priorities are best set at the country or colony level. The degree of movement of non-breeding gulls within the region and the amount of migration into the West Indies by wintering North American Laughing Gulls is not known. This information is important if site-by-site management becomes a priority.

Care should be taken to avoid local situations where the population is subsidized by garbage disposal and disposal of fisheries by-catch. This species is one of the suite of commensal species that benefit from human development (via scavenging) and have a negative multiplicative affect on the non-human ecological system.


Selected References

Buckley, P. A. and F. G. Buckley 1984. Seabirds of the North and Middle Atlantic Coast of the United States: their status and conservation. Pp. 101-133. In J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World’s Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

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.

Chardine, J., R. P. Morris, J. F. Parnell and J. Pierce. 2000. Status and conservation priorities for laughing gulls, gull-billed terns, royal terns and bridled terns in the West Indies. In E. A. Schreiber and D. S. Lee (eds) Status and Conservation of West Indian Seabirds. Society of Caribbean Ornithology, Special Publication Number 1.225 p.

Clapp, R. B. and P. A. Buckley 1984. Status and conservation of seabirds in the Southeastern United States. Pp. 135-155. In J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World’s Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

Kushland, J.A. et al. 2002. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas: The North American Waterbird Conservation Plan, Version I. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas, Washington, DC. 78 p.

van Halewyn, R. and R. Norton. 1984. The status and conservation of seabirds in the Caribbean. Pp. 169-222. In J. P. Croxall, P. G. Evans and R. W. Schreiber (eds). Status and Conservation of the World’s Seabirds. ICBP Tech. Publ., No. 2. 778 p.

West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas by Will Mackin and David Lee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on work at www.wicbirds.net. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at www.wicbirds.net.

Suggested Citation: Lee, D. S., W. A. Mackin. 2009. Laughing Gull. West Indian Breeding Seabird Atlas <http://www.wicbirds.net/lagu.html>. Last Updated: _____. Date accessed: ______

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