What’s So Funny?

Uproarious laughing gulls find folly everywhere

By Susan Campbell

For me, nothing evokes childhood memories of long days at the beach more than raucous calls of seagulls. It seems like just yesterday: warm breezes blowing, the surf crashing against the shore and sand between my toes, all the while being serenaded by loud laughter from above. Although I did not know it at the time, the birds responsible were laughing gulls. Here on the East Coast they are one of the most numerous and noticeable species in saltwater habitat. Individuals are instantly recognized not only by their distinctive voices, but by their crisp black hood. This bird can be found soaring along the North Carolina shoreline, bobbing up and down on open waters of the sound and, of course, loitering on our beaches.

These birds use a very specific language of displays to communicate among themselves. Territories are defended by ritualized bowing and neck extensions with a loud series of calls. Feather fluffing and wing flapping may also be involved if the debate heats up. The loser simply turns away, unscathed, to fight another day.

Laughing gulls can be seen in some numbers during the cooler months along the southern portions of our coast. However, they are joined by a handful of other gull species that appear in much larger numbers by about Thanksgiving. But in summer, laughings are by far the most numerous.

Pairs, which are monogamous and may stay together for several years, seek out uninhabited islands (often made of dredge spoil here) to build their nests. They are usually mixed in with other colonial nesting seabirds such as herons, ibis and shorebirds, as well as other gull species. Both male and female construct a nest platform that is close to the ground, on rocks or marsh vegetation or even in low shrubbery. Often it is placed at a somewhat higher elevation to avoid flooding associated with high tides and storm events. Eggs are heavily streaked in order to be camouflaged against the salt marsh vegetation and grasses that comprise the nest. The young, too, are mottled in order to keep them hidden, especially during the first few weeks of life, when they are left unattended by their foraging parents and are most vulnerable to predators.

Laughing gulls are, not surprisingly, very opportunistic feeders. They will grab anything from small fish and crabs to large insects and berries as well as handouts from humans. It is not unusual to see one or two attending a pelican, hoping to take advantage of prey that falls from its large gape as it surfaces with a mouth full of fish. Also, individuals may raid the nests of other gulls but nowhere as often as their larger cousins, the herring or great black-backed gulls.

Kids feeding gulls on the beach or on the back of a ferry is a common summer pastime. This usually involves a loaf of bread. As soon as the first bird catches a morsel, a flock of two or three dozen birds seems to appear out of nowhere! As much as gulls have pretty tough stomachs, white bread is (as is the case for other wild birds such as ducks and geese) not good for them. It expands when exposed to moisture in the gut and, given the lack of fiber content, can get bound up in their system. Of course, they seem to appreciate any handout they can get. But we need to think a little and offer something safer. Crackers or even a french fry or two would be better options.

So, for the next several months, laughing gulls will be inescapable here at the coast. A walk on the beach, fishing out in the Gulf Stream or even a trip to the mall, these hysterical sounding birds will be everywhere. So keep an eye — and an ear out. No binoculars required!

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos at susan@ncaves.com.

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