Much confusion appears to exist among authors regarding our Laughing Gull, and this, in my humble opinion, simply because not one of them has studied it, in its native haunts, and at all seasons, since the period when it was briefly characterized by our great master LINNAEUS, who, after all that has been said against him, has not yet had his equal. ALEXANDER WILSON, who, it seems, knew something of the habits of this bird, thought it however identical with the Larus ridibundus of Europe, as is shewn by the synonymes which he has given. Others, who only examined some dried skins, without knowing so much as the day or even the year in which they had been shot, or their sex, or whether the feathers before them had once belonged to a bird that was breeding, or barren, when it was procured, described its remains perhaps well enough for their own purpose, but certainly not with all the accuracy which is necessary to establish once and for ever a distinct species of bird. Others, not at all aware that most Gulls, and the present species in particular, assume, in the season of pairing, and in a portion of the breeding time, beautiful rosy tints in certain parts of their plumage, which at other periods are pure white, have thought that differences of this sort, joined to those of the differently-sized white spots observable in particular specimens, and not corresponding with the like markings in other birds of the same size and form, more or less observable at different periods on the tips of the quills, were quite sufficient to prove that the young bird, and the breeding bird, and the barren bird, of one and the same species, differed specifically from the old bird, or the winter-plumage bird. But, reader, let us come to the point at once.
At the approach of the breeding season, or, as I like best to term it, the love season, this species becomes first hooded, and the white feathers of its breast, and those of the lower surface of its wings, assume a rich blush of roseate tint. If the birds procured at that time are several years old and perfect in their powers of reproduction, which is easily ascertained on the spot, their primary quills shew little or no white at their extremities, and their hood descends about three quarters of an inch lower on the throat than on the hind part of the head, provided the bird be a male. But should they be barren birds, the hood will be wanting, that portion of their plumage remaining as during winter, and although the primaries will be black, or nearly so, each of them will be broadly tipped, or marked at the end, with a white spot, which in some instances will be found to be fully half an inch in size; yet the tail of these birds, as if to prove that they are adults, is as purely white to its extreme tip, as in those that are breeding; but neither the breast, nor the under wing-coverts, will exhibit the rosy tint of one in the full perfection of its powers.
The males of all the Gulls with which I am acquainted, are larger than the females; and this difference of size is observable in the young birds even before they are fully fledged. In all of these, however, putting aside their sex, I have found great differences of size to exist, sometimes as much as two inches in length, with proportional differences in the bills, tarsi, and toes; and this, in specimens procured from one flock of these Gulls at a single discharge of the gun, and at different seasons of the year. The colour of their bills too is far from being always alike, being brownish-red in some, purplish or of a rich and deep carmine in others. As to the white spots on the extremities of the primary quills of birds of this family, I would have you, reader, never to consider them as affording essential characters. Nay, if you neglect them altogether, you will save yourself much trouble, as they will only mislead you by their interminable changes, and you may see that the spots on one wing are sometimes different in size and number from those on the other wing of the same specimen. If all this be correct, as I assure you it must be, being the result of numberless observations made in the course of many years, in the very places of resort of our different Gulls, will you not agree with me, reader, that the difficulty of distinguishing two very nearly allied species must be almost insuperable when one has nothing better than a few dried skins for objects of observation and comparison?
The Black-headed Gull may be said to be a constant resident along the southern coast of the United States, from South Carolina to the Sabine river; and I have found it abundant over all that extent both in winter and in summer, but more especially on the shores and keys of the Floridas, where I found it breeding, as well as on some islands in the Bay of Galveston in Texas. A very great number of these birds however remove, at the approach of spring, towards the Middle and Eastern Districts, along the shores of which they breed in considerable numbers, particularly on those of New Jersey and Long Island, as well as on several islands in the Sound. They constantly evince a dislike to rocky shores, and therefore are seldom seen beyond Massachusetts, in which State indeed they are exceedingly rare.
None were observed by any members of my party on the Magdalene Islands, or on the coasts of Labrador or Newfoundland. I never met with any of them on the Mississippi above New Orleans, although they are plentiful in that neighbourhood during winter, and until the breeding season commences; and I think that this species never travels beyond the influence of the tide-waters of any stream. WILSON, in speaking of it, says that it is seen on the newly ploughed fields, and around the houses of the farmers of New Jersey; but the habit of visiting ploughed grounds I have not observed in any one of the American Gulls, although I have frequently noticed it in some of the European species, particularly Larus canus, L. ridibundus, and L. argentatus.
At all periods of the year, the Black-headed Gulls keep in flocks formed of many families; and in the breeding season, or even as soon as their courtships have commenced, they assemble by hundreds of pairs, or even by thousands. At this time they are so clamorous as to stun your ear with their laughing-like cries, though at other seasons they are generally silent, unless when suddenly alarmed, or when chased by the Jager. Their loves are conducted with extreme pomposity: they strut and bow to the females, throwing their head backwards, like all other Gulls, although in a less degree and with a less curious motion than Cormorants. You see them first stretching their heads forwards; then, with open bill, vibrating tongue, and eyes all glowing, they emit their loud laughing notes, which, in a general sense, resemble those of many other species, though they are not precisely similar to those of any. But before I proceed with my account of their manners, I will give you the result of some curious observations which I made on them in Florida.
Previously to my visit to that interesting peninsula, I had not unfrequently noticed indications of strong amatory propensities in several species of Gulls, but never to the extent exhibited by the present species, many of which I saw copulating in the latter part of autumn and in winter, fully three months before the usual time of depositing their eggs in that country. Similar observations were made on Larus argentatus, on the coast of Maine, and on Larus marinus, in the Bay of Fundy. Nay, even in Europe I have seen this extraordinary tendency to reproduce out of season, as it were. On some such occasions, when I was at St. Augustine, in the month of December, I have observed four or five males of the present species paying their addresses to one female, who received their courtesies with evident welcome. Yet the females in that country did not deposit eggs until the 20th day of April. The most surprising fact of all was, that, although these birds were paired, and copulated regularly, by the 1st of February, not one had acquired the spring or summer plumage, or the dark coloured hood, or the rosy tint of the breast, nor lost the white spots on the tips of their primary quills. This change, however, was apparent by the 5th of March, became daily stronger, and was perfected by the 15th of that month. A few exceptions occurred among the numbers procured at these periods, but the generality of the birds were as above described.
Whilst at Great Egg Harbour, in May 1829, shortly after my return from England, I found this species breeding in great numbers on the margins of a vast salt marsh, bordering the sea-shore, though separated from the Atlantic by a long and narrow island. About sunrise every morning, an immense number of these birds would rise in the air, as if by common consent, and wing their way across the land, probably intent on reaching the lower shores of the Delaware river, or indeed farther towards the head waters of Chesapeake Bay. They formed themselves into long straggling lines, following each other singly, at the distance of a few yards. About an hour before sunset, the same birds were seen returning in an extended front, now all silent, although in the morning their cries were incessant, and lasted until they were out of sight. On arriving at the breeding-ground, they immediately settled upon their nests. On a few occasions, when it rained and blew hard, the numbers that left the nests were comparatively few, and those, as I thought, mostly males. Instead of travelling high, as they were wont to do in fair and calm weather, they skimmed closely over the land, contending with the wind with surprising pertinacity, and successfully too. At such times they were also quite silent. I now and then observed some of them whilst on wing, and at a considerable height, suddenly check their course, as if to examine some object below; but on none of these occasions did I see one attempt to alight, for it soon resumed its wonted course, and rejoined its companions.
Now, reader, though I am growing old, I yet feel desirous of acquiring knowledge regarding the habits of our birds, and should much like to learn from you the reasons why these Gulls went off in lines from their breeding-grounds, and returned in an extended front? Was it, in the latter case, because they were afraid of passing their nests unknowingly; or, in the former, under the necessity of following an experienced leader, who, under the stimulus of an empty maw, readily undertook the office, but who, like many other bon-vivants, became in the evening too dull to be of use to his companions?
This species breeds, according to the latitude, from the 1st of March to the middle of June; and I have thought that on the Tortuga Keys, it produced two broods each season. In New Jersey, and farther to the eastward, the nest resembles that of the Ring-billed Gull, or Common American Gull, Larus zonorhynchus, being formed of dried sea-weeds and land plants, two and sometimes three inches high, with a regular rounded cavity, from four and a half to five inches in diameter, and an inch and a half in depth. This cavity is formed of finer grasses, placed in a pretty regular circular form. I once found a nest formed as it were of two; that is to say, two pairs had formed a nest of nearly double the ordinary size, and the two birds sat close to each other during rainy weather, but separately, each on its own three eggs. I observed that the males, as well as the females, thus concerned in this new sort of partnership, evinced as much mutual fondness as if they were brothers. On the Tortugas, where these Gulls also breed in abundance, I found their eggs deposited in slight hollows scooped in the sand. Whilst at Galveston, in Texas, I found their nests somewhat less bulky than in the Jerseys, which proved to me how much birds are guided in these matters by differences in atmospheric temperature and locality.
I never found more than three eggs in a nest. Their average length is two inches and half an eighth, their greatest breadth a trifle more than an inch and a half. They vary somewhat in their general tint, but are usually of a light earthy olive, blotched and spotted with dull reddish-brown and some black, the markings rather more abundant towards the larger end. As an article of food, they are excellent. These Gulls are extremely anxious about their eggs, as well as their young, which are apt to wander away from the nest while yet quite small. They are able to fly at the end of six weeks, and soon after this are abandoned by their parents, when the old and young birds keep apart in flocks until the following spring, when, I think, the latter nearly attain the plumage of their parents, though they are still smaller, and have the terminal band on the tail.
The Black-headed Gull frequently associates with the Razor-billed Shearwater, Rhynchops nigra, in winter; and I can safely say that I have seen more than a thousand of each kind alight on the same points of estuaries and mouths of rivers; the Gulls standing or sitting by themselves, at no great distance from the Razor-bills. Now and then they would all suddenly rise on wing as if frightened, perform a few evolutions in the air, and again settle on the very same spot, still, however, keeping separate. While thus in the company of the Razor-bills, the Gulls are with great difficulty approached, the former being exceedingly wary, and almost always rising when a person draws near, the Gulls immediately following them, and the two great flocks making off to some distant point, generally not very accessible. If taken up on being wounded, these Gulls are apt to bite severely. If, on being shot at, they fall on the water, they swim fast and lightly, their companions all the while soaring above, and plunging towards them, as if intent on rescuing them. This great sympathy often proves fatal to them, for, if the gunner is inclined, he may shoot them down without any difficulty, and the more he kills the more his chances are increased.
On the 10th of May, 1832, it was my good fortune to be snugly on board the "Lady of the Green Mantle," or, in other words, the fine revenue cutter Marion. The Gulls that laughed whilst our anchors were swiftly descending towards the marvellous productions of the deep, soon had occasion to be sorrowful enough. As they were in great numbers, officers and men, as well as the American woodsman, gazing upon them from the high decks of the gallant bark, had ample opportunities of observing their motions. They were all busily engaged on wing, hovering here and there around the Brown Pelicans, intent on watching their plunges into the water, and all clamorously teasing their best benefactors. As with broadly extended pouch and lower mandible, the Pelican went down headlong, so gracefully followed the gay rosy-breasted Gull, which, on the brown bird's emerging, alighted nimbly on its very head, and with a gentle stoop instantly snatched from the mouth of its purveyor the glittering fry that moment entrapped!
Is this not quite strange, reader? Aye, truly it is. The sight of these manoeuvres rendered me almost frantic with delight. At times, several Gulls would attempt to alight on the head of the same Pelican, but finding this impossible, they would at once sustain themselves around it, and snatch every morsel that escaped from the pouch of the great bird. So very dexterous were some of the Gulls at this sport, that I have seen them actually catch a little fish as it leaped from the yet partially open bill of the Pelican. And now, reader, I will conclude this long article with some fragments from my journals.
Tortugas, May 1832.--Whilst here, I often saw the Black-headed Gull of WILSON, sucking the eggs of Sterna fuliginosa, and Sterna stolida. Our sailors assured me that these Gulls also eat the young of these two species of Terns when newly hatched.
Great Egg Harbour, May 1829.--Like all other Gulls, the Larus Atricilla disgorges its food when attacked by a Lestris, or when wounded, or suddenly surprised; but on all occasions of respite this Gull is apt to return to it, and vulture-like to swallow it anew. It differs however from the larger species of Gulls, by never, as far as I have observed, picking up bivalve shells, for the purpose of letting them fall to break them, and afterwards feed on their contents. On the ground they walk with considerable alertness, and not without a certain degree of elegance, especially during the love season. Whilst floating or swimming on the water, they are graceful in a high degree, and when seen, as they oftentimes are, in groups of many pairs, rising with, or sinking amidst the billows, which ever and anon break on the sandy shores of the coast, their alternate appearance brings to the mind of the bystander ideas connected with objects altogether different from the simple yet beautiful Laughing Gull.
April 1, 1837.--South-west pass of the Mississippi. L. Atricilla abundant here at this season, as well as at New Orleans. Saw some floating on logs during a heavy breeze. Not noisy yet, though they and L. zonorhynchus are in full spring dress (the old birds).
Barataria Bay, April 1837.--This species is abundant, following the porpoises, whilst the latter are fishing, and attending on them, as they do on the Brown Pelicans, which I saw here tormented by these birds, as in the Floridas. These Gulls follow the Brown Pelicans to their roosts, and along with them sit on grounded logs, at some distance from the shores, to avoid the attacks of racoons and other carnivorous animals.
Galveston Bay, April 26, 1837.--Black-headed Gulls are not unfrequently seen hovering over the inner ponds of these islands, as if in search of food. They are now all paired, and very noisy.
May 4.--I observed to-day that at the single cry of a Black-headed Gull, all others within hearing at once came towards the caller, and this never failed when any of them had found floating garbage on which to feed. These, as well as all other Gulls, pat the water with their feet, their legs being partially extended, whilst assisting themselves with the bill to pick up any floating food. At this time the whole group emit a more plaintive single note than usual. They come not unfrequently within a few yards of our vessel at anchor, and when the food thrown to them is exhausted, they separate, and at once renew their repeated cries. I observed that the few immature birds among the old ones, were quite silent even when in the company of the adults. When the young are nearly able to fly, they are by no means bad eating.
BLACK-HEADED GULL, Larus ridibundus, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ix. p. 89.
LARUS ATRICILLA, Bonap. Syn., p. 359.
BLACK-HEADED GULL, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 291.
BLACK-HEADED or LAUGHING GULL, Larus atricilla, Aud. Ord. Biog., vol. iv.p. 118.
Adult, 17, 40 3/4.
Most abundant from Texas to Massachusetts, breeding along the coast. Up the Mississippi to New Orleans. Those which in spring remove to the eastward of the Floridas return early in autumn.
Adult Male in spring.
Bill rather shorter than the head, nearly straight, moderately stout, compressed. Upper mandible with its dorsal outline straight to the middle, then curved and declinate, the ridge convex, the sides rapidly sloping, the edges sharp and direct, the tip rather obtuse but sharp-edged. Nasal groove rather long and narrow; nostrils in its fore part, longitudinal, sub-medial, large, linear-oblong, broader anteriorly, pervious. Lower mandible with the angle long and pointed, the outline of its crura decurved anteriorly, that of the ridge slightly concave and ascending, the sides erect and nearly flat.
Head of moderate size. Neck of ordinary length. Body compact. Feet rather long, stoutish; tibia bare below for three-fourths of an inch, covered behind with narrow scutella; tarsus compressed, anteriorly covered with numerous curved scutella, laterally with small oblong scales, posteriorly with small scutella. Toes slender, of moderate length, covered above with numerous scutella; first extremely small, second much shorter than fourth, third two-twelfths of an inch longer than the latter; anterior toes connected by reticulated webs, the outer and inner slightly marginate; claws small, slightly arched, compressed, thin-edged, that of the middle toe with an expanded inner margin.
Plumage close, soft, and blended. Wings very long and pointed; primaries tapering to a rounded point; first longest, second a twelfth of an inch shorter, the rest rapidly diminishing; secondaries broad, incurvate, and obliquely rounded, the inner straight and more elongated. Tail of moderate length, even, of twelve broad, rounded feathers.
Bill and feet, as well as the margin of eyelids, and the inside of the mouth, of a rich deep carmine; claws brownish-black. Iris bluish-black. The head and a portion of the upper part of the neck all round, blackish lead-grey, darker on the upper part of the head and along the posterior margin, which descends lower in front, or to the extent of about two inches and a half from the base of the lower mandible; two narrow white bands bordering the upper and lower eyelids. Lower neck all round, the whole surface, the rump and tail, pure white; but the fore part of the neck and the breast, down to the legs, of a beautiful light rosy tint. The back and wings are greyish-blue, with a very slight tinge of purple, excepting a large terminal portion of the secondaries, and the tips of the primaries, which are white. The first primary is black, with a tinge of grey on the inner web at the base; the second and third similar, with the grey more extended; on the fourth it extends over two-thirds; the fifth is black only for an inch and a half; and on the sixth the black is reduced to two spots near the end; the other parts and the remaining primaries of the same general colour as the back.
Length to end of tail 17 inches, to end of wings 20, to end of claws 17; extent of wings 40 3/4; wing from flexure 12 10/12; tail 5 2/12; bill along the ridge 1 11/12, along the edge of lower mandible 2 1/4; tarsus 2; hind toe and claw 4/12; middle toe and claw 1 9/12; outer toe and claw 1 1/2; inner toe and claw 1 3/12.
The female is precisely similar to the male, but considerably smaller.
In winter the head is white, the feathers on its upper part and on the nape more or less brownish-grey in their concealed part, that colour appearing in slight patches here and there, and especially along the posterior margin of the part that is coloured in summer, as well as on a small space before the eye. The rosy tint of the breast disappears after the breeding season. In other respects the plumage is as in summer.
Young fully fledged.
Bill, feet, inside of mouth, and edges of eyelids, olivaceous-brown. The upper parts are brownish-grey, the feathers edged with paler; the hind part of the back light bluish-grey; upper tail-coverts nearly white; tail pale greyish-blue, with a broad band of brownish-black at the end, the extreme tips narrowly edged with white, the outer margin of the lateral feathers of the same colour. The first four primaries are destitute of white at the tip. A smaller patch before the eye, two slight bands on the eyelids, and the throat, greyish-white; the lower part of the neck brownish-grey, the rest of the lower parts greyish-white, the sides darker, the axillars ash-grey, the lower surface of the wing dusky-grey.
In an adult male the tongue is 1 1/4 inches long, slender, tapering, emarginate at the base, with minute papillae, the tip horny along the back. The oesophagus is 6 1/2 inches long, 5 twelfths in diameter until it enters the thorax, then dilates to 1 inch and 5 twelfths; its walls are extremely thin, its inner coat longitudinally plaited. Proventriculus very short, the belt of oblong glandules being only 7 twelfths in breadth. Stomach rather small, oblong, 1 1/2 inches long, 10 twelfths broad; its lateral muscles rather thick, the tendons large; the inner coat thick, horny, and thrown into very prominent longitudinal rugae, its upper margin abrupt, and manifestly not continuous with the inner coat of the proventriculus, as some have supposed the epithelium to be in all birds. In the stomach remains of fishes. Intestines 1 foot 9 1/2 inches long, its general diameter 1/4 inch. Rectum 1 1/2 inches; coeca extremely small, 2 1/2 twelfths long, 1/2 twelfth in diameter.
Trachea 5 1/2 inches long; its rings 110, extremely thin and feeble; its diameter at the top 4 1/2 twelfths, at the lower part 2 1/2 twelfths. The lateral muscles are scarcely perceptible, the sterno-tracheal very slender; the inferior larynx small; the bronchi of moderate length and width, with 25 half-rings.