Adult breeding. Note: relatively dark mantle, red and black on tip of the bill and yellow legs
  • Adult breeding. Note: relatively dark mantle, red and black on tip of the bill and yellow legs
  • Adult nonbreeding. Note: dark brown streaking on back of head/neck.
  • 1st year. Note: pale face and bicolored bill.

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California Gull

Larus californicus
Charadriiformes
This is a large and highly varied group of birds that do not have many outward similarities. Most are water birds that feed on invertebrates or small aquatic creatures. The order is well represented in Washington, with seven families:
Laridae
The family Laridae is made up of birds closely associated with water. Distributed throughout the world, representatives of this family nest on every continent, including Antarctica. Most are long-lived birds, many of which do not breed until they are three or four years old. Most are colony nesters and nest on the ground. Clutch size is generally small, varying from one to four eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs and help feed the young. The young typically hatch covered with down and stay in the nest for a few days, after which they leave the nest but stay nearby. Most, especially in Washington, raise a single brood a year. This group is known for its elaborate displays in the air and on the ground.

The Washington representatives of this family can be split into two groups, or subfamilies. The adaptable gulls are the most familiar. Sociable in all seasons, they are mainly coastal, but a number of species also nest inland. Many—but not all—are found around people. Gulls have highly variable foraging techniques and diets. Terns forage in flight, swooping to catch fish or insects. They dive headfirst into the water for fish. Although they are likely to be near water, they spend less time swimming than gulls.
Common resident.
  • Sound To Sage
  • Puget Sound Seabird Survey

General Description

A medium-sized gull, the California Gull has the typical 'gull-like' appearance'slate-gray back and wings, white head and body, and black wingtips with white spots. The black on the wingtips is more extensive than that of other gulls. The California Gull's eye is dark, and its legs are greenish-yellow. The beak is yellow with red and black marks. Juveniles are, to varying degrees, mottled brown and white, mixed with the adult plumage, with pink legs and beak. It takes four years for California Gulls to mature. This gull is intermediate in size between the smaller Ring-billed Gull and the larger Herring Gull, both of which it resembles.

Habitat

The California Gull is an inland breeding bird but may be seen at any season in marine habitats. It is common far from land in late summer and fall. As a breeder, it can survive in habitats that are too harsh for Herring and Ring-billed Gulls. During the breeding season, California Gulls inhabit lakes, farms, and marshes. They typically nest on gravel islands in large rivers or lakes. In winter, they spend time in nearly every habitat found along the Pacific Coast.

Behavior

California Gulls use a variety of foraging strategies, feeding while walking, wading, swimming, or flying. They are often seen on farms or in fields, following behind the plows and picking up insects uncovered by the machinery. They have also been reported to lie in wait for rodents to be flooded out of their holes when fields are irrigated.

Diet

In Washington, California Gulls feed in agricultural lands, cities, and wetlands near their nesting areas. In agricultural areas in this state, they feed primarily on small rodents. Insects, fish, eggs, and garbage are also part of the diet of this opportunistic feeder.

Nesting

California Gulls begin breeding at the age of four. They are colony nesters, sometimes in mixed colonies with Ring-billed or Herring Gulls, although they don't typically hybridize with either of those species. The colonies are usually large and are often on an island. Nests are located on the ground, and may be quite close together. The birds form monogamous pair bonds for the duration of the breeding season and may re-pair in succeeding seasons. However, they often pair with different birds, even when both members of a former pair are still alive. Both help build the nest, a shallow scrape in the ground lined with weeds, bones, feathers, and other debris. Clutches are usually 2-3 eggs, and nests with more than 3 eggs are attributed to multiple females. Both parents help incubate the eggs for about 3 weeks. The young leave the nest after a few days, but stay nearby, fed regurgitated food by their parents until they can fly at the age of about 6 weeks.

Migration Status

Most California Gulls breed in the interior and migrate to the Pacific Coast. Some birds winter inland, and others, especially younger birds, remain in coastal areas throughout the summer.

Conservation Status

Known as the gull that rid the early Mormon settlers in Utah of plagues of grasshoppers, the California Gull is still considered a beneficial species throughout its range, although it has been associated with some crop damage. It is similar in its requirements to the Ring-billed Gull, but its population is smaller and its range more limited. The creation of many dams in eastern Washington has increased nesting habitat there, resulting in significant population increases in the past 50 years. Garbage dumps serve as a source of winter food, helping to sustain the population throughout the year. In 1996 there were 2,000 pairs of California Gulls nesting in Benton County, 4,000 in Walla Walla County, and 1,000 in Klickitat County.

When and Where to Find in Washington

In winter, California Gulls can be found all along the coastline, and also well offshore. It is the only Pacific gull that follows offshore ships in the summer and fall. Small numbers can also be seen on water throughout the Puget Trough in the winter. (It is common from the end of March to early November in Washington.) Breeders can be found in the Columbia Basin and along the Columbia River in Klickitat County. In Grant County, there is a nesting colony by Dry Falls Dam. During summer, small numbers of non-breeders are seen throughout the Puget Trough and along the outer coast, especially at the mouth of the Columbia River. During migration, it is common in offshore, coastal, and western Washington regions. Migrants have also been reported at high elevations throughout the Cascades.

Click here to visit this species' account and breeding-season distribution map in Sound to Sage, Seattle Audubon's on-line breeding bird atlas of Island, King, Kitsap, and Kittitas Counties.

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
EcoregionJanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
OceanicRRRRUFCCCCRR
Pacific Northwest CoastRRRFFUCCCCRR
Puget TroughRRRUUFCCCCFR
North CascadesRRRRR RRRRRR
West CascadesUUFCCCCCCFUU
East CascadesUUFCCCCCFFUU
OkanoganFFFCCCCCCCFF
Canadian Rockies UUR
Blue Mountains RRRR
Columbia PlateauCCCCCCCCCCCC

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern