Ring-billed gulls are medium-sized birds. Males are slightly larger than females. They are about 50.2 cm long and weigh about 550 g. Females are about 46.9 cm long and weigh about 470 g. Males and females have a wingspan of about 127 cm.
The backs and shoulders of ring-billed gulls are pale bluish-gray, and the head is white. The wings are tipped in black with white spots. Underneath, ring-billed gulls are white. The legs and feet have a yellow or green color. There is a black ring around the bill.
Immature birds have different coloration. First year ring-billed gulls are white with brown flecks and very dark wing tips and tail. Second year gulls are more like the adults, but have a black-tipped tail. Nestlings have two color phases; some are smoky gray, while others are pink with white spots.
Ring-billed gulls are native to the Nearctic and Neotropical regions. They live across the northern United States and southern Canada. During winter they migrate to the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America. They are also found in Bermuda and Hawaii. (Farrand, 1988; Palmer and Fowler, 1975)
Ring-billed gulls are often found along inland waterways and in open landscapes. They typically occur on beaches, open grasslands, and wet meadows. Their preference for open areas makes them well-suited to urban and suburban landscapes and they are often found on large, grassy lawns, parking lots, and in vacant land. (Farrand, 1988; Palmer and Fowler, 1975; Ryder, 1993)
Ring-billed gulls are monogamous (one male mates with one female). Males and females for breeding pairs just before arriving on the breeding grounds, or just after arriving. Occasionally, two females mate with one male. This is called polygyny. (Ryder, 1993)
Ring-billed gulls nest in colonies on the ground, or sometimes in trees near lakes. They often nest near other water birds. The male and female work together to build the nest out of twigs, sticks, grasses, leaves, lichens and mosses.
The female lays three eggs. Each is about 6.4 cm long by 4.6 cm wide. The eggs are light blue, green or brownish and spotted. The male and female both incubate the eggs for about 20 to 31 days. After the chicks hatch, both parents brood and feed them. The chicks begin leaving the nest within days of hatching, and are able to fly at about 5 weeks old.
Both parents incubate the eggs and feed nestlings until they reach independence. The young remain in the nest until they are able to walk, at about 4 days old. Birds depart from the nesting area immediately upon fledging, at about 45 days old.
Ring-billed gulls have been recorded living as long as 23 years in the wild. However, it is likely that the majority of these birds live much shorter lives than this, probably 3 to 10 years.
Ring-billed gulls are active during the day. They migrate between breeding and wintering areas.
Ring-billed gulls are highly social, occupying large colonies especially during the breeding season. They defend small territories within nesting colonies. They engage in play, dropping objects while airborne, then swooping down to catch them. They may steal food from other gulls and European starlings as well as fending off other birds that may steal their food. (Farrand, 1988; Palmer and Fowler, 1975; Ryder, 1993)
Ring-billed Gulls communicate using calls and body language. They have two alert calls; a screeching call that sounds like "kree, kree" and a shrill "kyow kyow kyow " call that sounds high-pitched and squealing. They use a "mew" call during breeding activities, such as courtship feeding and feeding chicks.
While being aggressive, ring-billed gulls lower their head to their feet and then toss their head backward at the end of a call. When they are being submissive, they hunch their head and neck and make short, high-pitched "klioo" calls while tossing their head. (Farrand, 1988; Palmer and Fowler, 1975; Ryder, 1993)
Ring-billed gulls are opportunistic feeders, or scavengers, meaning they will eat almost anything that they find. They eat fish, rodents, small aquatic animals, bird chicks and eggs, insects, and vegetable matter such as fruits, though they prefer animal foods.
This kind of feeding behavior has made them very successful in areas around humans where they take advantage of land fills, garbage dumps, and ships that dump garbage overboard. They also scavenge from plowed fields, parks, and parking lots. In fact, these gulls might be seen squabbling over discarded items from fast-food restaurants. Ring-billed gulls are able to snatch food from the water's surface while in flight. (Farrand, 1988; Fisher and Chartier, 1997; Palmer and Fowler, 1975)
Predators of ring-billed gulls include red fox, coyote, striped skunk, raccoons, long-tailed weasel, mink, California gulls, herring gulls, great horned owls, snowy owls, American crows and common ravens.
Ring-billed gulls swoop and soar above predators to drive them away. They also mob predators by attacking them in groups. Because ring-billed gulls nest and feed in large colonies, they depend on each other to detect predators. The alarm calls and panic flights of neighbors let other birds in colony know that a predator is nearby. (Ryder, 1993)
Ring-billed Gulls are scavengers, so they often consume foods that would otherwise go to waste. They affect the populations of the animals they prey upon. They also support the populations of small predators that prey on them.
Some people consider large groups of these birds to be pests due to their droppings, garbage stealing, and the noise that they create.
Ring-billed Gull populations are not threatened. Population sizes may have increased in recent historical times because ring-billed gulls benefit from human activities, such as landfills and fishing practices.
They are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act as migratory birds.
Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.
Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Janice Pappas (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
Farrand, J. 1988. Eastern Birds; An Audubon Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Fisher, C., A. Chartier. 1997. Birds of Detroit. Canada: Lone Pine Publishing.
Palmer, E., H. Fowler. 1975. Fieldbook of Natural History, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Peterson, R. 1967. A Field Guide to the Birds: Eastern Land and Water Birds, 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ryder, J. 1993. Ring-billed Gull. Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, P Stettenheim, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 33. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.