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Raucous laughing gulls: Timeless soundtrack for a day at the beach


A Laughing Gull glides above the beach. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Published April 6, 2024, in the McAllen Monitor


Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist


A rapid series of loud ha-ha-ha-haah-haah commands attention on the beach. It’s not rowdy beachgoers enjoying a fun story, it’s the clatter of the laughing gull, so tagged because its noisy vocalization sounds like human laughter. A happy bird? Perhaps. Certainly, a gregarious one.


Laughing gulls are social, intelligent, inventive, opportunistic and adaptable – and not shy about getting food, whether wading in the water, scurrying along the beach, stealing from other shore birds, each other or nagging humans on the beach until they share their snacks. A tossed morsel is swiftly caught mid-air.


The laughing gull is a good-looking sea bird of medium size with a wingspan of 36 to 47 inches. They generally outnumber other shore bird species at the seashore. In summer plumage, the colors are sharply defined: coal black head, slate-gray uppers, pure white underparts and black legs. White crescent marks are above and below the eye. Small white dots tip out the black outer primary wingtips.


A pair of Laughing Gulls. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The deep red beak is the ultimate identifier – and the head-thrown-back raucous laugh. In winter, the black hood is more like a gray mask.


Head thrown back, a Laughing Gull laughs full throttle. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Warm-loving coastal birds, laughing gulls are found along beaches of the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America, the Caribbean and northern South America. Their natural and healthy diet is mainly fish, shellfish, crabs, mollusks, insects, berries, garbage, refuse and carrion. They forage plowed agricultural fields near the coast looking for grubs; they rarely travel far inland.


Recently, local media carried stories of unusual creatures being tossed ashore by wind and tides. Species like by-the-wind sailor were left stranded and now are carcasses along the wrack line, like so much drift, providing laughing gulls with optional treats.


A Laughing Gull grabs a By-the-wind Sailor carcass from the sand. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The attentive laughing gulls have learned the ways of beachgoers and will eat just about anything they can steal or cadge as handouts. They frequent parking lots, scrounging for foods left by humans. That said, nutritionally inferior foods like bread, packaged, processed and cast-off fast foods may do a disservice to the gulls, potentially causing long-term health problems.


There are several collective nouns for gulls, like a squabble of gulls, or a gullery; laughing gulls are a guffaw.


While a small guffaw of laughing gulls hectored a family eating their lunch at the beach, a lone ring-billed gull successfully fished the shallows where it snagged a young Atlantic bumper fish and hauled it to the sand. Winter ring-billed gull markings are a brown streaked head. Adult plumage is a pure white head and underparts and soft gray upper wings and back; these gulls have a yellow bill with a black subterminal band.


Opportunistic Laughing Gulls quickly check out a Ring-billed Gull's fresh catch. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A Ring-billed Gull with an Atlantic Bumper fish. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

As the activity on the sand progressed, two royal terns kept a slow glide overhead, up and down the beach, high above the incoming tide, ready to plunge-dive for small fish just below the water’s surface. Terns are in the same order as gulls although sleeker with thinner, sharper, daggerlike orange bills. In spring and summer, royal terns have a black crown from bill to nape.


The beach offers lively entertainment, especially during April migration.


A Royal Tern high above the surf. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

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All About Birds, National Audubon Society and American Bird Conservancy websites and seabrookislandbirders.org, animalia.bio/laughing-gull and houstonaudubon.org were helpful in writing this article.

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