About Gulls

Gulls in Chatham © Richard Johnson
Gulls in Chatham © Richard Johnson

Travel anywhere along the coast of Massachusetts, and you’ll undoubtedly come across a flock of these familiar birds. Despite its common usage, the term “seagull” is a misnomer, probably adopted because gulls spend time along the seashore. There is no gull species known as a seagull.

While Massachusetts hosts a variety of gull species at different times throughout the year, those commonly seen are ring-billed, herring, great black-backed, and laughing, the latter three of which also nest in the Commonwealth.

Early in the 20th century, gulls were primarily winter visitors to the state. In 1912, the first pair of herring gulls was found breeding on Martha’s Vineyard, and in 1931, the first great black-backed gull nest was discovered in Salem.

Today gulls are a common sight in Massachusetts year-round. Their numbers have increased enormously in the past century, partially due to their protection from hunters, but also because of the increase in food sources supplied by people.

Location

During stormy weather, large numbers often congregate on fields, freshwater lakes, and reservoirs. At night, gulls retreat to communal roosts on coastal islands or in open water on lakes and at sea. Of course, visitors to fast-food restaurants have undoubtedly witnessed flocks of gulls inspecting the dumpster at some time or another.

Identification

While Massachusetts has hosted a wide variety of gull species, the ones we most commonly see are herring, great black-backed, and ring-billed gulls

Herring gull

Herring gull

Much larger than the ring-billed gull (25”), this species also has a gray back, gray wings with black tips, and white head, but its legs are light pink, and its bill is yellow with a red spot on the bottom near the tip. Read more in our Breeding Bird Atlas


Great black-backed gull

great black-backed gull © Dorrie Holmes

The largest gull (30”), the great black-backed gull has a black back and wings, white head, and pale, light pink legs. A red spot on the bottom near the tip marks its yellow bill. Read more in our Breeding Bird Atlas


Ring-billed gull

ring-billed gull © Tony Hisgett, wikicommons
© Tony Hisgett, wikicommons

The smallest of our common gulls (17.5”), the ring-billed gull has a gray back, gray wings with black tips, and white head, yellowish legs, and bill with a dark band near the tip. Ring-billed gulls, which are most commonly seen in central Massachusetts, have never successfully bred in Massachusetts.


Laughing Gull

laughing gulls © Richard Johnson

This 16.5-inch gull, with its distinctive black head and red bill, white neck and breast, gray back, and black tail can be seen along the coast of Massachusetts between April and November. Read more in our Breeding Bird Atlas


Life Cycle

As colonial breeders, herring and great black-backed gulls will often nest in the same colonies on islands and rocky coastal areas. Occasionally they will nest on the roofs of buildings. Many of their colonies occur on islands historically occupied by several tern species. These gulls have forced terns to use less desirable nesting sites on the mainland, seriously affecting terns’ breeding success.

The nest of a herring gull is little more than a scrape, usually lined with grass and feathers, while the great black-back builds a mound of seaweed, grass, or other debris, with a shallow depression in the center. Both species incubate for 27 to 30 days. Herring gull chicks can fly at five to six weeks old, while great black-backed gulls fledge at seven to eight weeks. Both parents care for the young.

Food

Gulls are opportunistic feeders, exploiting virtually any food source they can find. At sea they will eat small fish, and along the coast they eat mollusks, crustaceans, insects, eggs, and even smaller birds. An analysis of regurgitated pellets has revealed steak and pork bones, plastic wrap and utensils, aluminum foil, paper towel, and pieces of rubber, wood, metal, and glass.

Open landfills were once a primary food source for gulls, but most of these facilities are now capped and closed. Outflow sewage treatment plants also attracted gulls, but many of these have recently been cleaned up. Of course, the disposed byproducts of the commercial fishing business (both from boats and processing plants) are ambrosia to gulls, and freshly plowed farm fields expose tasty invertebrates for them to eat.