If you're of a certain age, you might remember Mikey, the kid in the cereal commercial who would eat anything. The laughing gull, Leucophaeus atricilla, is the Mikey of the bird world. They will eat anything, even garbage. They will take handouts, They will steal from each other, and they will forage for worms, bugs, snails, crabs, berries and, occasionally, the eggs and chicks of other birds.
And if you hear one, you know instantly where they got their name. They are loud and they cackle as if demented.
They are mostly shorebirds, but will venture inland slightly to visit parking lots, garbage dumps, old farm fields as well as more conventional habitats like saltmarshes and mangroves. Garbage dumps have been an important source of food, believe it or not. Laughing gulls live year-round along the coastline of the southeastern United States, including Florida. In summer, they're also found along northern beaches, but those birds are migratory. They will fly to Central America and South America to spend the winter.
Mature laughing gulls have two different looks, depending on the time of the year. In summer, breeding season, their heads are black, with a white arc around the top and bottom of each eye and a reddish bill. In winter, the black head turns mostly gray, the bill black.The body is white year-round, wings gray above with black tips. The white arcs on the eyes remain, however. Compare the top photo with the one at the bottom, left. Immature laughing gulls are more brown (see the photo on the bottom right), and take as long as three years before assuming full adult plummage.
As birds go, they're fairly large; as gulls go, they are medium-sized, with a body length that can reach 1.5 feet and a wingspan of 3 to 4 feet. They nest in large numbers on islands and other places that are secure from terrestrial predators. Both sexes share the chore of building a nest, although males tend to gather material more than females, while females do more of the actual construction. They nest on the ground in higher places, which limits the risk of flooding.
Laughing gulls do nest in Florida, though not widely. There are colonies in the Keys and Florida Bay, in Tampa Bay and along Merritt Island, among other places. Spoil islands — piles of dredged sand and rock — are favorite places. On natural sites, they prefer places where the vegetation is not too dense.
They are daytime foragers, but will work at night as well during breeding season. Females lay as many as four eggs, which require three to four weeks of sitting before they hatch. The newborns are capable of leaving the nest after a day but require about five weeks before they fledge.
Similar looking birds include Bonaparte's gull, which is smaller than the laughing gull and has pink legs, and Franklin's gull, which is rare on the east coast.
Like too many birds, laughing gulls were the target of hunters looking to fill the fashion industry's demand for plummage during the late 19th century. Pesticides also took a toll on the population during the second half of the 20th century. However, laughing gull populations have been increasing in recent decades. The biggest threat to the bird is development and loss of nesting habitat.
One quick taxonomic note: Laughing gulls were formerly known as Larus atricilla, and some references still use the name. They are members of Laridae, the gull family.