Birds – Laughing Gull

(Lanus atricilla)

Called also: BLACK-HEADED GULL; RISIBLE GULL Length—16 to 17 inches.

Male and Female—In summer: Head covered with a dark slate brown, almost black, hood, extending farther on throat than on nape, which is pure white like the breast, tail, and under parts. Mantle over back and wings dark, pearl gray. Wings have long feathers, black, the inner primaries with small white tips. Bill dark reddish, brighter at the end. Eyelids red on edge. Legs and feet dusky red. Breast some-times suffused with delicate blush pink. In winter : Similar to summer plumage, except that the head has lost its hood, being white mixed with blackish. Under parts white with-out a tinge of rose. Bill and feet duller.

Young—Light ashy brown feathers, margined with whitish on the upper parts ; forehead and under parts white, sometimes clouded with dark gray ; tail dark pearl gray with broad band of blackish brown across end ; primaries black.

Range—” Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, north to Maine and Nova Scotia ; south in winter through West Indies, Mexico (both coasts), Central America, and northern South America (Atlantic side), to the Lower Amazon.” A. O. U.

Season—Summer resident, and visitor throughout the year.

No bird that must lift up its voice to drown the howlings of the gale and the pounding, dashing surf in an ocean storm might be expected to have a soft, musical call; and the gulls, that pass the greater part of their lives at sea, must therefore depend upon squalls, screams, barks, and shrill, high notes that carry long distances, to report news back and forth to members of the loose flocks that hunt together above the crest of the waves. The laughing gull, however, utters a coarse scream in a clear, high tone, like the syllables oh-hah-hah-ah-ah-hah-hah-h-a-a-a-a-ah, long drawn out toward the end and particularly at the last measure, that differs from every other bird note, “sounding like the odd and excited laughter of an Indian squaw,” says Langille, “and giving marked propriety to the name of the bird.” All gulls chat-ter among themselves, the noise rising sometimes to a deafening clamor when they are disturbed in their nesting grounds; but the laughing gull, in addition to its long-drawn, clear note on a high key, ” sounding not unlike the more excited call-note of the domestic goose,” suddenly bursts out, to the ears of superstitious sailors, into the laugh that seems malign and uncanny.

A more southern species than any commonly seen off our shores, the laughing gull nests from Texas and Florida to Maine, though it is not a bird of the interior, as the ring-billed species is, nor so pelagic as the herring gull. It delights in reedy, bush-grown salt marshes that yield a rich menu of small mollusks, spawn of the king crab and other crustaceans, insects, worms, and refuse cast up by the tide. In such a place it also nests in large colonies, forming with its body a slight depression in the sand that is scantily lined with grasses and weeds from the beach, and concealed by a tussock of grasses. Three to five eggs, varying from olive to greenish gray or dull white, profusely marked with chocolate brown, are not so rare a find for the collector as the eggs of most other gulls that nest in the extreme north, where only the hardy explorers in search of the North Pole count themselves more fortunate sometimes to find a square meal of gulls’ eggs.

Formerly these laughing gulls were exceedingly abundant all along our coasts. Nantucket was a favorite nesting resort, so were the marshes of Long Island and New Jersey; but unhappily a fashion for wearing gulls’ wings in women’s hats arose, and though only the wings were used, as one woman naively protested when charged with complicity in their slaughter, the birds have been all but exterminated at the north. In southern waters they are, happily, common still, and will be again at the north when the beneficent bird laws shall have had time to operate.