Bird Watcher's General Store

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Laughing Gulls

Dear Bird Folks:

Last week I saw a flock of Black-headed Gulls. When I mentioned it to someone I was told Black-headed Gulls are rarely seen around here. How could that be when I saw so many?

-Judy, Barnstable


Judy, Judy, Judy,

I think it is time you broke down and bought yourself a bird book. I know bird books are hard to find, since there are only about a thousand different ones out there. If you actually look in your book, you will notice that there are many different black-headed gulls, but only one Black-headed Gull. Confused? Well you should be.

There are many species of gulls with black heads, but only one with the common name of “Black-headed Gull” and that bird lives mainly in Europe. Your friend was right, we don’t have many of those around here. The gulls that you saw in Barnstable are called “Laughing Gulls”. They too have black heads, but since that name was already taken, a more amusing name was chosen for them.

Laughing Gulls are our small gulls of summer. We only see them for half of the year since they spend most of the winter feeding along the coast from the Carolinas to the Gulf of Mexico. They return to Cape Cod in April when their raucous calls can be heard long before the birds are seen. Once you hear the call of the Laughing Gull you will understand how they got their very appropriate name. A Laughing Gull’s call is less bird-like and more like the sound of someone’s big mouthed aunt after a few high balls.

Laughing Gulls like to nest in large colonies. They usually return to the same nesting area each spring, but are willing to choose a new place if they don’t like the changes that storms might have made over the winter or if the rent has gone up too high. Over the past few decades the big colony on the outer Cape has shifted from Monomoy Island, to New Island in Eastham and recently back to Monomoy. I guess all those wild summer Eastham parties were getting too much for them.

Laughing Gulls are often found nesting with terns. Although they will occasionally eat a young tern or two, they are not nearly as aggressive as the larger gulls and pose no real threat to the terns. In fact, the rancorous noisy gulls probably offer the terns a bit of protection from other predators.

The noise coming from a Laughing Gull colony is hard to imagine. It is a deafening wall of sound with gulls screaming from every direction. What’s amazing is that studies indicate that a gull is able to distinguish its own mates voice, even above all of the other screaming gulls. I’m not sure if that is a good or bad thing.

Many people consider Laughing Gulls to be our most handsome gull, yet we almost lost this bird when tens of thousands of them were slaughtered in the nineteenth century for the hats of snotty city women. Finally, with protection, the population has rebounded nicely.

Laughing Gulls, like most gulls, aren’t fussy eaters. They thrive on the three basic gull foods; small fish, crustaceans and French fries. Every summer I have to listen to beach goers whine about the gulls stealing their fries. I actually think the gulls are doing them a favor, as some of those people could stand to do without a French fry or two.

After the nesting season the Laughing Gull’s stately black head molts into a generic dull white color, with a gray smudge. By the end of September most of our Laughing Gulls have started working their way back south and the nesting colonies close up for the season. If you want to hear their haunting laugh in the winter Judy, you’ll have to play a gull recording or pour your aunt a couple of high balls.