Confusing gull in the piney woods, far from the ocean

Jay V. Huner,
Journal Correspondent

Laughing Gull to the left and a Franklin’s Gull to right
• Louisiana Ecrevisse, Boyce, LA

First of all, many people refer to gulls as “sea gulls”. However, many are found far from the sea. One species we sometimes see around large piney woods lakes and reservoirs is Franklin’s Gull. This species breeds in the prairie states and provinces in North America and most winter on the west coast of South America below the Equator.

 We see them from time to time during fall migration when large flocks can sometimes swarm around large bodies of water as they move toward wintering grounds. In breeding plumage, Franklin’s Gull has a black head and white eye rings. The bill is red. Guess what? This is pretty much what the Laughing Gull looks like! So, birders can be easily confused when trying to separate the two species!

Distinctions between Laughing and Franklin’s gulls exist but require close scrutiny. First, habitat is a consideration. Laughing Gulls are coastal birds. The ones found away from the Gulf coast are either lost birds or have been blown inland by tropical weather, especially hurricanes. Second, Laughing Gulls are much larger than Franklin’s Gulls with clearly larger bills when the two species can be compared. A “pint-sized” Laughing Gull with a small bill requires close attention. Finally, the tips of adult Franklin’s Gulls are white but those of adult Laughing Gulls are black. This is the “give away” distinction between adult birds of the two species.

When flocks of Franklin’s Gulls appear around piney woods water bodies in the fall, adults have lost the black head color. However, they have partial “hoods” and very conspicuous eye rings AND white wing tips. The first year immature gulls present identification problems unless they are found in a large flock including adult birds. That is, the wing tips are black, not white. Granted they are small, the same size as adults, but the only way to tell them definitively from similar Laughing Gulls is to look at the black subterminal bands on the tails of both species. With Franklin’s Gull, the band does not extend to the outer tail feathers but it does with Laughing Gulls. It’s pretty hard to tell the difference without almost holding the birds in hand!

Breeding plumage is unique in that the birds take on a rosy pink cast. Pink pigment is deposited at the bases of the feather shafts. The pigment fades as the breeding season progresses.

Franklin’s Gulls nest in the marshes associated with prairie lakes. They construct floating nests in several feet of water that must be constantly maintained as the vegetation decomposes. An additional problem is that the birds are constantly taking nest material from adjacent nests.

During their time on prairie nesting grounds, Franklin’s Gulls feed heavily on flying insects and earth worms. They congregate wherever fields are being plowed to take advantage of flushed insects and exposed worms.

One common name for the Franklin’s Gull is “Prairie Dove”. This likely results from the dove-like feeding behavior, concentrating on fields.

During their time on coastal wintering grounds, Franklin’s Gulls adopt a much more typical gull diet. Small fish and crustaceans become common food sources in addition to insects.