The skies over Michigan are filled with the calls and silhouettes of numerous gull species. These aquatic birds are a common sight along shorelines, harbors, and landfills across the state. Eight types of gulls frequently seen in Michigan are the Ring-billed Gull, Herring Gull, Caspian Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull, Mew Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Laughing Gull, and Black-legged Kittiwake. Ranging from small to large in size, each species has unique identifying features and behaviors. Learn more about Michigan’s fascinating and diverse gull populations, where to find them, how to identify them, and what ecological roles they fill across the varied landscapes of the Great Lake State.
|Gull Type||Size||Distinguishing Features|
|Ring-Billed Gull||Medium, 50 inch wingspan||Black ring around yellow bill|
|Herring Gull||Large, 60 inch wingspan||Yellow eyes with red ring, yellow bill with red spot|
|Caspian Tern||Very large, 60 inch wingspan||Black cap, large orange bill|
|Bonaparte’s Gull||Small, 40 inch wingspan||Black head and bill during breeding season|
|Mew Gull||Small, 42 inch wingspan||Yellow bill with red spots, greenish legs|
|Great Black-Backed Gull||Very large, over 65 inch wingspan||Dark gray or black back and upper wings|
|Laughing Gull||Medium-sized||Distinct laughing vocalizations|
|Black-Legged Kittiwake||Small, 40 inch wingspan||Black legs, gray back, yellow bill|
Table of Contents
1. Ring-Billed Gull
The ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) is one of the most common and recognizable gulls found in Michigan. With a wingspan of around 50 inches, these medium-sized gulls have gray backs and white underparts. Their most distinguishing feature is the black ring around their yellow bill, which is how they get their name.
Ring-billed gulls breed in large colonies near the Great Lakes and larger inland lakes. They build nests on the ground out of grasses and debris. The female typically lays three brown or olive-colored eggs with dark spotting. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for around three weeks until hatching. Chicks are able to fly within five weeks of hatching.
These gulls are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. They often forage in groups known as flocks. Their diet consists of small fish, aquatic invertebrates, insects, earthworms, grain, and garbage. Ring-billed gulls frequently scavenge in parking lots and landfills. They also steal food from other birds and each other. Their loud calls of “kree-ah” are commonly heard near their nesting colonies and feeding grounds.
During the winter months, most ring-billed gulls migrate south to the Great Lakes, Atlantic coast, and Gulf of Mexico. However some remain in Michigan if open water is available. These hardy gulls thrive around human activity and populations have increased dramatically over the last century. Their adaptability has allowed them to colonize cities and take advantage of new food sources.
2. Herring Gull
With a wingspan approaching 60 inches, the herring gull (Larus argentatus) is one of the largest gulls found in Michigan. These big white-headed birds have gray backs and white underparts. Their yellow eyes have a red ring and their yellow bill has a red spot.
Herring gulls nest in colonies on islands and along coastlines of the Great Lakes. Breeding pairs build nests of grasses and sticks on the ground. Females usually lay three brown or green spotted eggs. Both parents take turns sitting on the eggs for around four weeks until they hatch. Chicks are able to fly five to six weeks after hatching.
These large gulls are opportunistic feeders and scavengers. They patrol shorelines, docks, parking lots, and landfills looking for food. Fish, crabs, mussels, insects, rodents, eggs, berries, seeds, and garbage make up their varied diet. Their loud laughing cries of “kyow” are a familiar sound near coastal areas.
During winter, most herring gulls migrate south to the Great Lakes, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts. Some remain in Michigan if open water is present. Population numbers have increased dramatically in recent decades as these adaptable gulls have learned to take advantage of human food sources.
3. Caspian Tern
The Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia) is the largest tern in the world, with a wingspan reaching nearly 60 inches. They are found along the shores of the Great Lakes during summer nesting season. These striking birds have black caps, red-orange bills, and pale gray plumage. Their underparts are white with gray undersides on their primaries.
Caspian terns nest in colonies called creches of up to 2,000 pairs. Coastal islands with little vegetation are preferred nesting habitat. Breeding pairs build small nests in depressions in the sand or gravel. Usually two to three brown eggs with dark blotches are laid. Both parents incubate the eggs for around four weeks until hatching. Chicks are able to fly five to six weeks after hatching.
These terns primarily eat small fish such as alewife, smelt, stickleback, and minnows. They plunge-dive from heights of up to 50 feet to capture prey in their large orange bills. They also consume some invertebrates like insects and mollusks. Their raspy croaking calls echo over nesting colonies.
After breeding season, Caspian terns migrate south to winter along coastal areas of the southern U.S., Mexico, and Central and South America. Increased conservation efforts have helped populations rebound after previous declines from feather hunting and organochloride pesticides.
4. Bonaparte’s Gull
Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) is a small graceful gull that breeds in northern Michigan and Canada. Their wingspan reaches around 40 inches across. During breeding season, adults have black heads, gray backs, and white underparts. Their bill is black and their legs are orange-red. In winter, their head turns mostly white with a dark ear spot behind the eye.
These gulls nest in small colonies in pine or spruce trees near rivers, lakes, or bogs. Tree branches and twigs are used to build nests where the female lays three green to brown eggs with dark spots. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for 23-24 days until hatching. Chicks fledge around four weeks after hatching.
Bonaparte’s gulls feed on insects, small fish, crustaceans, worms, and berries. They capture prey while wading, picking from the surface, or plunge diving. They also scavenge scraps in fields, streams, and shorelines. Their high-pitched rapid cries sound like “kittee-wa.”
After breeding, Bonaparte’s gulls migrate south to winter along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Mexico, and Caribbean. Increased shoreline development has reduced available nesting habitat for this species leading to population declines.
5. Mew Gull
The mew gull (Larus canus) is a small-headed gull with a wingspan averaging 42 inches across. Their bills are yellow with red spotting and their legs are greenish. Adults have white heads, pale gray backs, and white underparts. Their eyes have yellow irises.
These gulls nest incolonies on coastal islands, lakeshores, and tundra areas. Both parents build nests on the ground using grasses, moss, and debris. Usually three brown, olive, or green eggs are laid with dark blotches. Parents take turns incubating the eggs for around four weeks until hatching. Chicks fledge about five weeks after hatching.
Mew gulls are opportunistic feeders that consume a variety of prey. Their diet consists of small fish, marine invertebrates, insects, earthworms, eggs, small mammals, berries, and grains. They often forage in plowed fields or short grassy areas. They also scavenge scraps in landfills and urban areas.
Most mew gulls migrate south in the winter along coastlines of the Great Lakes, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Some may remain in Michigan during winter if open water is present. This common species has benefited from human activities and has experienced population increases in recent decades.
6. Great Black-Backed Gull
As their name suggests, great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) have dark gray or black upper wing and back plumage. They are the largest gulls in the world with wingspans reaching over 65 inches across. Their bills are yellow with red spots and their eyes have yellow irises.
These massive gulls breed along the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes. They build nests on islands, dunes, and cliffs using grasses, seaweed, and debris. The female typically lays three brown, olive, or green eggs with dark splotches. Both parents incubate the eggs for around four to five weeks until hatching.
Great black-backed gulls are powerful predators and scavengers. They prey upon fish, crabs, mollusks, smaller birds, small mammals, and carrion. At landfills and harbors, they aggressively steal food from other gulls and waterbirds. Their deep laughing cries of “ha-ha-ha” carry over coastal areas.
These gulls winter along Atlantic and Pacific coastlines from the Great Lakes south to Florida and Mexico. Conservation efforts have helped populations increase after previous declines from hunting, eggs collecting, and habitat loss. Their large size and predatory feeding habits do lead to conflicts with humans at times.
7. Laughing Gull
The laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) gets its name from its distinct vocalizations that sound like loud braying laughs. They are medium-sized gulls with black heads, gray backs, and white underparts during breeding season. Their bills and legs are black. In winter, their heads turn mostly white.
These gulls nest in large coastal colonies along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Smaller numbers breed in southern Michigan, primarily on Beaver Island. Pairs build nests on sandy or marshy ground where 2-4 brown to green eggs are laid. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for around three weeks until hatching.
Laughing gulls feed on small fish, marine invertebrates, insects, and other small prey. They capture food while wading, surface plunging, and dipping. They also commonly scavenge in parking lots and landfills. Laughing gulls are noisy and social birds that migrate south to winter along the Gulf Coast and Caribbean.
8. Black-Legged Kittiwake
The black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) is a small graceful gull with a circumpolar distribution. Their wingspan reaches around 40 inches across. True to their name, adults have black legs along with gray backs, white heads, and bright yellow bills. Juveniles have black wingtips and a dark bar on their tails.
These pelagic gulls nest on sea cliffs and rocky slopes along northern coastlines. Both parents help build nests out of mud, grasses, seaweed, and feathers. Typically two to three brown eggs with dark spots are laid. Parents take turns incubating the eggs for around four to five weeks until hatching. Chicks fledge five to seven weeks after hatching.
Black-legged kittiwakes predominantly forage over open ocean waters for fish, squid, and crustaceans. They snatch prey from the surface or perform shallow plunge dives. Their high-pitched calls sound like raspy “kittee-wa-akes.”
After breeding, these gulls migrate south to spend winters dispersed across pelagic areas of the northern Atlantic and Pacific. Conservation efforts have helped stabilize populations after historical declines from overharvesting of eggs and habitat disturbance.