Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
Read Caption
A herring gull photographed at Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Herring Gull

About the Herring Gull

The most widespread pink-legged gull in North America, the herring is common in the east and mainly a winter visitor in the west. Hybrids can be locally common (mainly in the wescat). Polytypic. Length 22–27"; wingspan 53.5–60".


Large gull with 4 plumage cycles; sloping head and fairly stout bill with distinct (but not bulbous) gonydeal expansion. Pink legs at all ages. Subspecies smithsonianus described unless otherwise noted. Breeding adult: pale gray upperparts; black wing tip with white mirrors on outer 1–2 primaries. (In West, most have mirror only on outermost primary.) Pale-yellow eyes (can be dusky, especially in west); yellow-orange orbital ring; yellow bill, reddish gonys spot. Winter adult: dusky streaking and smudging on head and neck. Duller bill and legs; bill often develops black subterminal mark; orbital ring can be dark to pinkish. Juvenile and first-winter: fresh juvenile sooty brown overall; neat, scaly upperparts; strong dark barring on tail coverts. Inner primaries form pale panel on upper wing. Tail is mostly blackish (but some with extensive whitish hue at base). Variable first-winter Molt: Some (especially East Coast breeders) soon attain new barred and mottled back feathers; others (especially west coast winter populations) retain most or all juvenal plumage through winter. Head often bleaches to whitish. Blackish bill soon develops dull flesh color on base; rarely flesh-pink with clean-cut black tip by midwinter. Second-winter: resembles first-­winter, but back usually with pale-gray feathers (from none to a solid pale-gray saddle); tail mostly black. Pink bill with black distal third (more adultlike in second summer); eyes sometimes become pale. In second-summer, head and body whiter; bill rarely like adult, but usually with black distal mark. Third-­winter: highly variable. Some resemble second-winter; others resemble winter adult, but have more black on wing tips, some black on tail. Best aged by adultlike pattern of inner primaries. (Second-winter’s inner primaries resemble first-winter’s.) Bill usually pink with black distal band; eyes pale. In third-­summer, head and body mostly white like breeding adult; bill like adult’s or with some black marks. Adult vegae: upperparts medium gray; eyes dark (mostly) to pale (rarely); reddish orbital ring; rich pink legs. Juvenile and first-winter vegae: head and body paler overall than smithsonianus, with sparser dark barring on tail coverts; tail whitish based with broad blackish distal band. Older ages best distinguished by medium gray tone of upperparts. Adult argentatus: some have darker, medium gray upperparts; but many not safely told from smithsonianus. Juvenile and first-winter argentatus: resembles vegae, from which perhaps not safely told except by (presumed) distribution.

Geographic Variation

Recent work indicates species status warranted for several taxa subsumed into traditional herring gull complex, including the “American herring” gull (smithsonianus), the “European herring” gull (argentatus) of northwest Europe, and the “Vega” gull (vegae) of east Asia.

Similar Species

Adult fairly distinctive, but see the Thayer’s, which is smaller with more slender bill, shorter legs; eyes often dark; wing tips slaty blackish at rest and mostly pale from below, showing much more white on outer primaries than do herrings in the West. Beware “diluted” adult herrings, which may be hybrids with the glaucous-winged or the glaucous. Juvenile and first-winter herrings are extremely variable, but not like any other regular large gull in the East. Main problem in the west is separation of small female herrings from dark Thayer’s, besides different structure, Thayer’s outer primaries are more extensively pale on inner webs, creating venetian-blind pattern on spread outer primaries; unlike herring’s more solidly dark wing tip. (Some herring x glaucous-winged hybrids very like Thayer’s in plumage, but bigger-billed.) The Western is stockier and broader-winged, with a more bulbous-tipped black bill; lacks pale inner primary panel. On older immatures, note overall shape, bill structure, and upperwing pattern. Some herring x glaucous-winged hybrids look like adult “vega” but are often bulkier, with slightly paler upperparts and wing tips. First-year “vegas” are told from bulkier slaty-­backeds by more solidly blackish outer primaries; narrower, blacker tail band. Bleached first-summers not always identifiable.


Varied. Long call has slightly honking or laughing quality. The “vega” gull’s call is lower pitched, harsher.

Status and Distribution

The following refers to smithsonianus unless otherwise noted. Breeding: breeds North America common (May–August); colonial or in scattered pairs on coastal islands, islands in lakes, on buildings. Since late 1980s has bred in Louisiana, Texas. Subspecies vegae is fairly common on St. Lawrence Island (May–September). Migration: nearly throughout North America where common to abundant in many regions. Mainly August–October and February–April. Subspecies vegae rare to casual in Aleutians. Dispersal: ranges (mainly June–September) to Arctic coast of Alaska and Bering Sea islands. Subspecies vegae uncommon (especially August–September) to Seward Peninsula. Winter: South to Middle America. Coastal, inland, and offshore. In west, uncommon along much of immediate coast in range of the dominant Western and glaucous-winged gulls. Wintering birds arrive continent­wide by October, with marked increase during mid to late October Departs most regions by May, but some nonbreeders oversummer along Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf coasts; locally elsewhere. Vagrant: casual to Europe and Hawaii. Subspecies vegae accidental in Texas and apparently also California. Subspecies argentatus rare to casual (mainly November–April) in the east, most records from Newfoundland; casual west to Ontario, south to mid-Atlantic coast.


In North America, recovered after egging and feather hunting in late 1800s. (United States population only 8,000 pairs in 1900.) East coast population greater than 100,000 pairs in mid 1980s and spreading south. Numbers in Northeast and Atlantic Canada now declining; linked to egging and competition with expanding great black-backed gull populations.

—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006