With their raucous cries and aerial acrobatics, gulls are a familiar sight along the coasts, rivers, and lakes of Alberta. From small, delicate Sabine’s gulls barely over a foot long to towering glaucous gulls with wingspans exceeding 5 feet, this family of aquatic birds occupies a range of habitats across the province. Their adaptability allows different species to thrive alongside humans in urban settings as well as remote, icy tundra. This article explores 8 of the most common gulls found in Alberta, from the ubiquitous ring-billed gull of park ponds to rarely seen Arctic nesters like the Thayer’s gull. Read on to learn how to identify these charismatic seabirds of Alberta’s waterways.
|Gull Type||Size||Distinguishing Features|
|Ring-Billed Gull||18 inches long, 44 inch wingspan||White head, yellow bill with black ring, light gray back/wings, yellow legs|
|California Gull||19 inches long, 49 inch wingspan||Gray back/wings, black wingtips, yellow bill with red/black spot, yellow legs|
|Herring Gull||25 inches long, 60 inch wingspan||Pale gray back, black wingtips with white spots, pink legs|
|Mew Gull||16 inches long, 40 inch wingspan||Rounded head, small yellow bill with red spots, greenish-yellow legs|
|Thayer’s Gull||Slightly smaller than Herring Gull||Darker gray back, pink legs, bright red spot on lower bill|
|Glaucous Gull||28 inches tall, 60 inch wingspan||Pale gray wings/back, yellow bill, pale pink to yellow legs|
|Iceland Gull||25 inches long||Pale gray wings, white wingtips, yellowish to pink legs, black bill|
|Sabine’s Gull||13 inches long, 40 inch wingspan||Black hood, yellow-tipped black bill, black/white patterned wings|
Table of Contents
1. Ring-Billed Gull
The ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is one of the most familiar and widespread gulls found across Alberta. With a white head, light grey back and wings, and yellow legs, these gulls are medium in size at around 18 inches long with a wingspan of 44 inches. The ring-billed gull gets its name from the distinctive black ring around its yellow bill.
Ring-billed gulls are a common sight along lakes, rivers, and coastlines across Alberta, where they feed on fish, insects, earthworms, and more. They are opportunistic feeders and will also readily eat garbage and scraps in urban areas. Ring-billed gulls breed near water in colonies of up to several hundred pairs, building nests on the ground lined with grasses, moss, and debris. The female lays around 3 eggs which both parents help incubate for around 3-4 weeks. Chicks are able to fly at around 5 weeks old.
As omnivores, ring-billed gulls play an important role in aquatic ecosystems by helping control insect and fish populations. They are adaptable birds, thriving in proximity to humans in urban areas as well as remote inland lakes and coastlines. With an estimated population of over 2 million, ring-billed gulls are in no danger of decline and are classified as a species of Least Concern. They can live up to 15 years in the wild.
2. California Gull
With its distinctive red and black spot near the tip of its yellow bill, the California gull (Larus californicus) is a familiar sight across western North America. In Alberta, these gulls are most common in the southern areas of the province. Slightly larger than ring-billed gulls at 19 inches long with a 49 inch wingspan, California gulls have grey backs and wings, bold black wingtips, and pale yellow legs.
California gulls nest in large colonies near lakes and rivers, building nests on the ground lined with vegetation. The female lays 2-3 eggs which are incubated for around 27 days before hatching. Chicks are able to fly by 6-7 weeks old. These gulls feed mostly on insects, small fish, and crustaceans but are also opportunistic scavengers.
While they range across western North America to Alaska, around half the global population breeds around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. However, their numbers have declined somewhat from historical levels due to factors like habitat loss and predation. They are currently listed as Near Threatened with an estimated population of 500,000 birds. Protection of key breeding sites will be important for the future of this species.
3. Herring Gull
Among the larger gull species found in Alberta, herring gulls (Larus argentatus) stand out with their pale grey backs, black wingtips with white spots, and pink legs. They measure around 25 inches long with a wingspan approaching 60 inches. Named for their tendency to feed on herring and other ocean fish, herring gulls are a coastal species that has adapted to freshwater lakes and rivers inland as well.
In Alberta, herring gulls are most numerous in the northeastern part of the province around Lake Athabasca. They nest in noisy colonies along coasts and lake shores, laying 2-3 eggs in nests lined with vegetation. Both parents share incubation duties for around 28 days until the chicks hatch, who then fledge at 6-7 weeks old.
Opportunistic feeders, herring gulls will eat fish, intertidal invertebrates, eggs and young of other bird species when available, as well as garbage and scraps. While populations are generally stable, they face threats from habitat disturbance, human persecution, and competition with other gull species. Herring gulls are currently listed as Least Concern with global populations estimated at over 2 million birds.
4. Mew Gull
The mew gull (Larus canus) is on the smaller end of the gull family at just 16 inches long with a wingspan under 40 inches. It is distinguished by its rounded head, small yellow bill with red spots, and greenish-yellow legs. The wings and back are light grey. Mew gulls get their name from their primary calls which sound like high-pitched “mewing.”
In Alberta, mew gulls nest in marshes and along lakes, laying 3-4 eggs in a nest built on matted vegetation. Chicks hatch after around 23 days and fledge by 4-5 weeks old. They feed on insects, fish, and other small prey both along coastlines and further inland at freshwater sites.
Mew gulls have an extensive circumpolar distribution, breeding across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. However, some populations have declined, likely due to predators like mink as well as development and pollution. They are currently listed as Least Concern but their wide range makes global populations difficult to estimate. Protecting wetland nesting areas will benefit this small gull into the future.
5. Thayer’s Gull
Similar in appearance to the herring gull, Thayer’s gull (Larus thayeri) was formerly considered the same species but is now recognized as distinct. Slightly smaller than the herring gull, Thayer’s is distinguished by its darker grey back, pink legs, and bright red spot on its lower bill. Their wingtips also lack the white spots seen on herring gulls.
In Alberta, Thayer’s gulls can be found during winter and migration at lakes and rivers across the southern half of the province. However, they breed exclusively in Arctic regions, nesting on tundra near freshwater.
Thayer’s gulls feed on fish, marine invertebrates, and insects in coastal areas and freshwater lakes during the breeding season. During winter, they are more likely to scavenge scraps and garbage. Global populations are estimated to number around 100,000 birds and they are currently listed as Near Threatened, with declines observed in some breeding populations possibly due to climate change reducing food sources.
6. Glaucous Gull
Among the largest gull species in the world, the glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus) is a cold-adapted species breeding in Arctic regions. In Alberta, they are rare winter visitors to lakes and rivers across the northern half of the province. With pale grey wings and back, legs ranging from pale pink to yellow, and a massive yellow bill, adults stand around 28 inches tall with a wingspan approaching 60 inches.
Glaucous gulls nest on Arctic cliffs and tundra, with the female laying just 1-3 eggs. Chicks hatch after around 28 days and fledge within 7 weeks. These gulls feed on fish, marine invertebrates, seabird eggs and chicks, and carrion. During winter, they readily scavenge at landfills and in urban areas.
While global populations exceed 200,000 birds, some local declines have been observed possibly linked to climate change. However, glaucous gulls as a species are currently listed as Least Concern. Their remote Arctic breeding range provides natural protection.
7. Iceland Gull
Similar to the glaucous gull but slightly smaller at around 25 inches long, the Iceland gull (Larus glaucoides) breeds in Arctic regions of Alaska, northern Canada, and Greenland. However, despite their name, they do not actually breed in Iceland. In Alberta, they are uncommon winter visitors usually observed around lakes and rivers in the northern half of the province.
Distinguished by their pale grey wings, white wingtips, and yellowish to pink legs, Iceland gulls have a black bill that can help differentiate them from the all yellow-billed glaucous gull. Chicks hatch after around 30 days of incubation and are able to fly by 6-7 weeks old.
Feeding on fish, crustaceans, and the eggs and young of other bird species, Iceland gulls may scavenge more readily in winter months. Their global population is estimated at several hundred thousand breeding pairs and they are currently listed as Least Concern, although some local declines have been noted possibly linked to climate change impacts.
8. Sabine’s Gull
The smallest gull species likely to be encountered in Alberta, Sabine’s gull (Xema sabini) measures just 13 inches long with a wingspan under 40 inches. They are distinguished by their rounded head, black hood, yellow-tipped black bill, and striking black-and-white patterned wings. Their legs range from black to yellow-green.
Sabine’s gulls breed exclusively in Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. They migrate long distances and winter at sea off western South America. In Alberta, they can be observed briefly during spring and fall migrations, congregating near lakes in flocks numbering in the hundreds or thousands.
Feeding on insects and other small prey plucked from the water’s surface, Sabine’s gulls make agile, acrobatic flights and dives to catch food. Despite their small size, they breed on open tundra far from water, relying on larger bodies of water just for feeding. Sabine’s gulls have a relatively small global population estimated at just 100,000 to 1 million birds but are not currently at risk, listed as Least Concern. Protecting their remote Arctic breeding grounds will be crucial for this mesmerizing little gull.