Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
Adult Laughing Gulls "Heckle and Jeckle" show their striking breeding colors as they call atop a Tree Swallow nesting box in Jamaica Bay." Photo: Don Riepe
LAUGHING GULL (LEUCOPHAEUS ATRICILLA)
This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of The Urban Audubon.
By Don Riepe
The Laughing Gull, whose loud territorial call resembles a hysterical, raucous laugh, is a common sight—and sound—on New York City beaches in the summertime. During its spring and summer breeding season, this medium-sized gull’s striking black head, red beak, and white eye arcs distinguish it from all other common gulls, while in the winter, it is a less distinctive gray and white, with a black bill. The Laughing Gull’s breeding range extends along the coast from Virginia to Maine, with greatest numbers concentrated in coastal New York and New Jersey. The species’ wintering range extends from North Carolina as far south as Bolivia.
These slender, long-winged gulls are adroit flyers and can turn on a dime. I’ve watched them “hawking” insects like swallows, which larger gulls like Herring and Great Blacked Gulls can’t manage. They are omnivorous and can be found feeding at local beaches such as Coney Island and the Rockaways, where they’ll steal food from unwary sunbathers. They also forage in the marshes of Jamaica Bay, especially during horseshoe crab egg-laying season, in May and June.
The Laughing Gull’s breeding range has ebbed and flowed over the past 150 years as a result of various factors, including human pressures: habitat loss, egg-harvesting, and hunting for the millinery trade (the same practice that endangered National Audubon’s symbol, the Great Egret). Though the species most likely nested in New York City in the 1800s, the last 19th-century breeding record on Long Island’s South Shore was in 1888—and by the early 1900s, the species had disappeared from our area completely. Following protections provided by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, however, Laughing Gulls became increasingly common in the City as migrants—but they did not return to breed.
You can imagine our surprise, then, when in the spring of 1978, fellow New York City birder Peter Post and I found a Laughing Gull nest in Jamaica Bay’s Joco Marsh—the first breeding recorded in New York State in almost a century. Everyone was excited: a “new” nesting species for the State!
That was 1978. In 1979, 15 pairs colonized the site, and by 1990 there were 7,600 nesting pairs of Laughing Gulls nesting on three marsh islands in the eastern area of the bay: JoCo, Silver Hole, and East High Meadow Marshes. The greatest density of birds nested on JoCo—which, unfortunately, is right next to JFK Airport. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PA) and Federal Aviation Administration weren’t thrilled, as hundreds of the gulls were flying across the runways every day.
Thus began a series of contentious meetings between the airport agencies, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), and National Park Service, debating what to do. The first management attempt was “egg oiling,” i.e., spraying the eggs with mineral oil so they wouldn’t hatch. It had very limited success and was very labor-intensive, so it was ultimately dropped. The airport then initiated its longstanding Gull Hazard Reduction Program, under which any gull species traversing the runways is shot. In the program’s first year (1991), approximately 14,000 Laughing Gulls were culled. According to Laura Francoeur, PA’s chief wildlife biologist, cull numbers declined substantially after the first two years of the program, though yearly totals have remained in the thousands. In 2022, 1,224 Laughing Gulls were culled.
Though the breeding colony’s size was strongly impacted by the first years of the culling program—dropping from 7,600 pairs to approximately 2,500—the colony size has remained stable since that time, and may actually have increased in recent years. Surveys since 2019 have estimated numbers approaching 8,000 nests. Though that increase has been accompanied by an increase in plane strikes involving Laughing Gulls, I’ve always felt that the greater threat to aircraft was from larger, slower-flying, flocking species such as Herring Gulls, Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Brant, and Double-crested Cormorants. If any bird is able to avoid a collision with a plane, it is the Laughing Gull.
According to the North American Breeding Bird Atlas, the overall population of Laughing Gulls has increased over the past 50 years. The species has benefited from continuing protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and from the banning of DDT in 1972. Studies showed that DDT caused egg-thinning similar to that seen in raptors, and the pesticide may have also depleted Laughing Gulls’ prey when sprayed on the birds’ salt marsh habitat.
A mated pair—I named them Heckle and Jeckle after the cartoon crows from years ago—visits my dock every summer. They are noisy and territorial, chasing away any other Laughing Gull that stops on my dock. They and their kin stay in Jamaica Bay well into the late fall before they head south to the Carolinas and Florida, and return by mid- March early April. These gulls, along with Edgar the Great Egret and nesting Purple Martins and Tree Swallows, make up the denizens of my dock in Jamaica Bay.