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Laughing Tattletales in the Anchorage

It is dinner time and I am preparing the beautiful the tuna that we caught today. I notice a bit of skin and fin that I don’t want for the grill and certainly would rather not deposit in our trash, so I quietly slip it overboard. It is just fish going back to sea, right?  And then, BUSTED! Three gulls are cackling and fighting over the tidbit and announcing to the anchorage that I tossed something overboard. Who are these noisy tattletales in the anchorage?

Laughing Gulls are native to North and South America. They breed on the Atlantic coast of North America, the Caribbean, and northern South America. The northernmost populations migrate further south in winter. The populations of Laughing Gull in the West Indies, Central America and Florida are largely resident. They are the most common gulls in the Caribbean and the only breeding gulls in the Lesser Antilles.

Adult Laughing Gulls don a dapper suit in the breeding season. They have black heads and snow white necks and it appears that their heads have been dipped in dark chocolate. Their dark bills are tipped with red and they have lightly applied white eyeliner above and below their dark eyes. The breeding adult’s back and wings are dark gray; trailing edge of wing is white, and wing tip is black, without white spots. In winter they loose their dark hood and red beak.

Laughing Gulls take three years to reach adult plumage. Immature birds are dark brown with contrasting rump and broad black tail band. The other medium sized, black headed gull that might be confused with a Laughing Gull is a Franklin’s Gull and they are very uncommon in the Caribbean. Laughing gulls have earned their name from their call which sounds a bit like a high pitched human laugh – ha ha ha ha.

Laughing gulls are not picky eaters—they feed on fish, shrimp, crabs and scraps from fishing boats and all manner of food trash. They do forage for themselves, but can often seen following fishing boats, as the fisherman toss out the fish offal, or scavenging at garbage dumps and dumpsters. They are very agile flyers and easily catch bits of food tossed into the air. They also steal fish from other seabirds. Unlike many larger gulls, Laughing Gulls seldom steal the eggs or chicks of other birds.

Laughing Gulls breed in coastal marshes and ponds in large colonies. The nest is made largely from grasses and is constructed on the ground. The three or four greenish eggs are incubated for about three weeks. This gull is susceptible to human disturbance and predation throughout its breeding cycle. They avoid 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. Herring Gulls prey on the eggs and young of Laughing Gulls.

Laughing Gulls present interesting conservation concerns. These gulls were extirpated (locally extinct) from many coastal colonies in the late 1800s and early 1900s by egg collectors and the millinery (hat) trade. They, like many other seabirds, gulls and terns, have suffered a loss of nesting habitat due to destruction and development of wetlands. On the other hand, the flexible or “plastic” behavior of both diet and nesting habitat of these gulls has facilitated the expansion of their range. Most gulls have benefited from human activities in this century, and the Laughing Gull is no exception.

Today the Laughing Gull is increasing in much of its range; for example, they have recently nested in New York State for the first time in 100 years. The expansion of the Laughing Gull range has had a negative impact on some other seabirds, terns and shorebirds that are not as flexible about their nesting sites. Laughing gulls can displace the other birds in nest sites. Laughing Gulls have also become hazards to aircraft because they have adapted to feeding on landfills and mowed fields surrounding airports.

Devi Sharp is a retired wildlife biologist and is exploring the birds of the Caribbean with her husband, Hunter on their sailboat Arctic Tern.

Chuck Shipley is a former professor of computer science and an avid amateur photographer. Chuck and his wife Barbara live aboard their trawler Tusen Takk II in the Caribbean.

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