Physical Description 

  • Non-breeding adults: A large bird, with white underbody, pale gray wings, and a black tail with white spots. Head is pale brown or tan coloration, mottled all over, and eye and bill are pale yellow. 
  • Breeding adults: Stark white body and head with gray back and wings, black wingtips with white spots, and pink legs. Bright yellow beak with red spot on lower beak and yellow eye.
  • Juveniles: Gray-brown or tan coloration, mottled or checkered feathers all over with a dark tail, dark bill and a dark eye.


  • Found all across North America, both coastal and inland.
  • Migrating: Some move south as far as Mexico, a few to West Indies and Panama. Young birds tend to migrate farther south in winter than adults. They spend the winter on the West Coast of the US and Mexico and in the southeastern states of the U.S..
  • Breeding: They migrate through much of the middle of the United States to breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska.
  • Non-breeding: Some are in the Northeast U.S. and Alaska year-round.


  • They can be seen in almost any habitat, from docks, to beaches, to coastal shorelines, to garbage dumps fighting over human food.
  • They gather in almost any open space near food, often in packs.


  • Herring gull pairs pick nesting sites together in soft soil, sand, or short vegetation.
  • Their nests are usually near a rock, log, or bush or in a crevice to protect it from the wind.
  • They dig out up to four scrapes in the ground and line them with feathers, vegetation, rope, and plastic that they find, and choose the best one to lay 1-3 eggs in.
  • The eggs are incubated for 31-32 days and are light olive or greenish in coloration with darker splotches.
  • Herring gulls have the heaviest eggs and highest hatching success rate of all gulls.
  • Newly hatched gulls can open their eyes, are covered in thick gray down with black spots, and can move around within several hours of hatching.
  • Parents feed their chicks day and night for 12 weeks, splitting foraging shifts, offering them up to half a pound of food a day as they grow.


  • Omnivores (meaning they eat both meat and plants).
  • They will eat fish, clams, mussels, crabs, insects, sea urchins, worms, smaller seabirds, and even eggs of other gulls.
  • These opportunistic feeders eat quite a lot of human trash and fish scraps as well, and are known to scavenge food from other gulls.
  • Can carry hard-shelled animals high in the air and drop them to crack them open.


  • Great horned owls, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, gyrfalcons, short-eared owls, ravens, northern harrier hawks, black-crowned night herons, and great blue herons, red foxes, dogs, harbor seals, gray seals, raccoons, cats, and mink.

Interesting Facts 

  • Herring gulls prefer to drink freshwater but if they have to drink saltwater, they have glands over their eyes that secrete the salt so it doesn’t dehydrate them. The salt can be seen dripping out of their nostrils and down their bills.
  • The species became quite rare during the 1800s when it was hunted for its eggs and feathers. From the 1930s to 1960s, the numbers of herring gulls increased rapidly due to protection from hunting, increased waste from fisheries to feed on, and less competition for food as humans reduced the populations of large fish, whales, and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions). Numbers leveled off during the 1970s and 80s and may now be going down again in some areas.

Hear a Herring Gull’s alarm call

Hear a Herring Gull’s typical keeyer call

Sources:; Birds of North;; Audubon Field Guide  

Photo: Kevin Lee