Utah State Bird – Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis

State Bird of Utah- Ring-Billed Gull

Utah State Bird Ring-Billed Gull

The Utah state bird, the Ring-Billed Gull (Larus californicus), was signed into law in 1955. Also known as California Gulls, these birds may seem like an unlikely choice, but they saved Utah in 1848 during a cricket infestation.  

The Ring-Billed Gull is white and blue-gray and about 2 feet long. They soar in the sky magically and are not coastal birds. Besides crickets, these gulls eat all sorts of insects and even fish and eggs of other birds.

By John James Audubon,
F. R. SS. L. & E.


[Ring-billed Gull.]

[Larus delawarensis.]                 

No country can afford greater facilities for the migration of water-birdsthan the United States of America. Even the Gulls are enabled to traverse their whole extent from north to south, and in the contrary direction, without suffering from want of food or of proper resting places. The Gull that has been bred in Labrador, or still farther north,ring billed gull can reach the Gulf of Mexico without being seriously incommoded by the storms that now and then rage along the Atlantic coast. The broad waters of the St. Lawrence leads it to our great lakes, from which hundreds of streams conduct into the head waters of the Ohio or the Mississippi, by following the windings of which it at length arrives in the warm regions of the Mexican Gulf, on whose waters the traveller can spend the winter. That these advantages are embraced by many species of Gull, there can be no doubt; and should you, as I have done, repeatedly visit our broad lakes, or the great rivers just mentioned, you would find there, at particular seasons, not only this species, but several others, as well as various kinds of Terns, but none of the genus Lestris. Lake Erie supplies with food the Larus marinus, L.argentatus, L. atricilla, and some others, as well as the Great, the Arctic,the Roseate, and the Black Terns, all of which pass at times over to theOhio, and from thence to the ocean. During these inland movements, thebirds seem to be peculiarly attracted by certain places, at which theyremain for awhile. Thus, at the Falls of the Ohio, some species remain for weeks, and wherever much shipping occurs on that river or the Mississippi, Gulls are sure to be seen gleaning the garbage that has been thrown over board, or seizing such fishes as rise incautiously to the surface of the water.In the months of September and October, Gulls and Terns might almost be said to abound on our great streams, and many return thither during the spring months on their way northward. Nay, to some species of Tern, the beautiful sand-bars and rocky beaches that occur here and there, are so attractive as to induce a few to remain and breed there. This is especially the case with the Black Terns, some of which rear their young by the rapids of the Ohio below Louisville, amidst the roaring sounds of which may be heard their shrill and continued cries.

You must not suppose, however, that all the Gulls which migrate in that country take the same route; for thousands follow the sinuosities of ourAtlantic coast, some of them perhaps proceeding as far south in that direction as those which follow our rivers. My opinion is, that the feebler individualsof the different species follow the inland route, while the older and morehardy birds keep along the shores of the ocean. The examination of numerous specimens on both of these extensive tracks has almost rendered this a matter of certainty, yet I should be much pleased to find this opinion corroborated by the observations of any other student of nature.

While on the coast of Florida, in the winter of 1832-33, I every daysaw Gulls of many species, but among them all were no adult birds, withthe exception of the Black-headed Gull of WILSON, which was very abundant.This greatly tended to strengthen my opinion, that the young Gulls areof more delicate constitution than their parents, which are better enabledto stand the rigours of the winter in the Middle States, where they arefound equally abundant at that season. For similar reasons, I also feelassured that the oldest birds are those which go farthest north to breed,and that the older and stronger individuals are, larger, with more purelytinted plumage, and with the colours of their legs, feet and bills, aswell as of the circle around the eye, more vivid than those which, althoughfound breeding, yet have not acquired their full maturity. In consequenceof these circumstances, some species have been described as forming several,and the great difference between the plumage of the young and the old birdshas led to similar errors.

Our Common Gull is seldom seen in the adult plumage of winter beyond the shores of Maryland southward, or in full summer plumage beyond theBay of New York, and this rarely after the middle of April, as at that period they gather into flocks, and remove farther north to breed. The places to which this species resorts for that purpose, and which I have visited, are several islands between Boston and Eastport, another close to Grand Manan at the entrance of the Bay of Fundy, the great Gannet Rock of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and certain rocky isles in the deep bays onthe coast of Labrador.

This species, although one of those most abundant on our coast, is sowell acquainted with the artifices of man, that it keeps more than othersbeyond the reach of the gun. While in our harbours or rivers it sails ata moderate height, sometimes mingling with the Silvery Gull, or even withthe Great Black-backed. Its movements are graceful and easy, and it floatsas it were in the air, whether proceeding in a direct line, or in irregularcurves, when, suddenly checking its speed, it partially closes its wings,and descends with rapidity in a spiral manner. As it approaches the water, it allows its legs to hang, opens its bill, and while seizing its food, raises its wings erect and flaps them quickly to support its body. Nowwith loaded bill it sweeps off to some distance, alights, and devours itsprey.

When in pursuit of a shoal of small fish, it assembles in flocks, keepsup a constant yelping noise, dips every instant among the fry, and continuesto feed until so gorged as to be unable to fly. Alighting in groups, theyfloat with great buoyancy, and it is pleasant to see them rising and fallingalternately on the waves of a moderately agitated sea, the snowy whitenessof their under parts contrasting with the deep green water, and their elongatedwings extending beyond the tail, giving the appearance of lightness andagility to their form,

The flight of this species is light and long sustained, and the circumstance of birds of this genus being able to find food almost anywhere, induces them at times to proceed far out to sea; and I have now and then been gratified by the sudden appearance of several birds of the present species to the lee of the ship, on whose deck I was with impatience watching for the sight of land. The winged pilgrims would no sooner come up than they also wouldexpress their pleasure by their cries, especially when they received fromthe passengers bits of bread or such garbage as might be at hand. Oncefed, they would fly about us the whole day, and sometimes would be seenthe next; and then perhaps all at once, as if made aware of the existenceof land in a particular direction, they would fly off, and we would seeno more of them.

When spring has fairly commenced, our Common Gulls assemble in partiesof hundreds, and alight on mud flats or sandy beaches, in our eastern estuariesand bays. For awhile they regularly resort to these places, which to theGulls are what the scratching or tooting grounds are to the Pinnated Grouse.The male Gulls, however, although somewhat pugnacious, are not very inveteratein their quarrels, making up by clamour for the deficiency of prowess intheir tournaments. The males bow to the females with swollen throats, andwalk round them with many odd gesticulations. As soon as the birds arepaired, they give up their animosities, and for the rest of the seasonlive together on the best terms. After a few weeks spent in these preparatorypleasures, the flocks take to wing and betake themselves to their breedingplaces.

On an island within a few miles of Eastport in Maine, I found thesebirds breeding in great numbers in the beginning of May. Their nests werethere placed amid the scanty tufts of grass. On the Gannet Rock, earlyin June, they were breeding on the shelves towards the summit, along withthe Guillemots, while the Kittiwakes had secured their nests far below.The different species kept apart, but yet exhibited no antipathy towardseach other. On the 18th of July, we discovered a low rocky island at the bottom of a bay ten miles from the open sea, opposite the harbour of Little Macatina, on the coast of Labrador, where we found upwards of two hundred nests, all containing eggs with the chicks more or less advanced. The numberof eggs in each nest was three or four, more generally three. They resembledthose of the Great Black-backed Gull in form and colour, but were muchsmaller, measuring two inches and three-quarters in length, by one andfive and a half eighths in their greatest diameter. There was considerablediversity both in the tint of their ground colour, and in the number andsize of the spots on them, as is the case with the eggs of most water-birds.In general, however, they were of a dull dark cream-colour, thickly blotched,sprinkled and touched with different shades of purple, umber, and black.When fresh, these eggs are delicious food, as I have had abundant occasionto know. The nests were in this place all situated on the bare rock, but in all other respects resembled those found among the grass or on more elevated rocks; they were formed of sea-weeds, well constructed, about six inches across within, and twelve in their greatest diameter. Some ofthe nests were much thicker and larger than others; many were placed withinthe distance of a foot from each other; and the whole place was coveredwith feathers and dung, which emitted a very disagreeable stench, provingto us that it was annually resorted to by these birds. To our surprisethe birds were very shy. Among those killed by us were some having allthe appearance of mature age, such as I have mentioned above. The numberof individuals among them having the black ring on the bill was much greaterthan among those found near Grand Manan; some, however, were without thisring, and on others it was but partially marked. Some had no white on thetips of the primaries, and differences were also observable in the lengthof the tarsus and toes; but all had the same voice, and were actually ofthe same species. We also found considerable differences in their sizeand weight, even in individuals of the same sex, some weighing one pound,others four ounces more, and some so much as one pound ten ounces. Themales, at an average, were larger than the females. Not a bird of any otherspecies was found there, or on the grassy islands.

Whatever opinion may be held as to the synonyms of this Gull, I am perfectlyassured of the above mentioned variations in the colour, size, and markingsof the younger and older birds. I am equally sure that no individuals acquirethe full beauty of their plumage before the third spring. The young areat first of a dull greenish-yellow, spotted with dark brown on the headand rump. In a very few days they leave the nest, ramble about in its vicinity,waiting the arrival of their parents with food, and conceal themselvesunder stones or in crevices at the appearance of danger. When a few weeksold, they do not hesitate, on being pursued, to betake themselves to thewater, where they swim with great lightness. When about the size of pigeons,they assume a brownish colour, each feather being broadly banded or tippedwith light ferruginous and grey. At this season, the fishermen of Labradorand Newfoundland kill them in great numbers, and pack them in salt forwinter use. I was much surprised one morning while at Labrador, to seeone of the barges of the Gulnare come alongside of the Ripley after a longcruize, when officers and men were glad to have a good mess of these youngGulls in the bow of their boat, they having run short of provisions.

LARUS CANUS, Mew or Common Gull, Rich. and Swains. F. Bor. Amer., vol.ii.p. 420.
LARUS ZONORHYNCHUS, Ring-billed Mew-Gull, Ibid., p. 421.
LARUS BRACHYRHYNCHUS, Short-billed Mew-Gull, Ibid., p. 422.
RING-BILLED MEW-GULL, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 300.

COMMON AMERICAN GULL, Larus zonorhynchus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii.p. 98;vol. v. p. 638.

Adult, 20, 48.

Common during winter from Texas, along the coast, to Maine. Up the Mississippito Natchez. Breeds from Maine to Labrador, Hudson’s Bay, and Arctic shores.Columbia river. Migratory.

Adult Male in summer plumage.

Bill shorter than the head, robust, nearly straight, compressed. Uppermandible with the dorsal line nearly straight at the base, arched and declinatetowards the end, the ridge convex, the sides slightly convex, the edgessharp, inflected, arched, the tip rather obtuse. Nasal groove rather longand narrow; nostrils in its fore part, lateral, longitudinal, linear, wideranteriorly, open, and pervious. Lower mandible with a prominence at theend of the angle, which is long and narrow, the dorsal line then nearlystraight and ascending, the sides convex, the edges sharp and inflected.

Head rather large. Neck of moderate length. Body rather full. Wingslong. Feet of moderate length, rather slender; tibia bare below; tarsussomewhat compressed, covered before and behind with numerous broad scutella,the sides reticulated; hind toe very small and elevated, the fore toesrather long and slender, the fourth longer than the second, the third longest,all scutellate above, and connected by reticulated entire membranes, thelateral toes margined externally with a narrow membrane. Claws small, compressed,slightly arched, rather obtuse.

The plumage in general is close, elastic, very soft and blended, onthe back rather compact. Wings very long, rather broad, acute, the firstquill longest, the other primaries rapidly graduated; secondaries broadand rounded, the inner elongated and narrow. Tail of moderate length, even,of twelve rounded feathers.

Bill marked opposite the angle with a broad transverse band of brownish-black,between which and the base it is light greenish-yellow, the tips orange-yellow.Edges of eyelids greenish-yellow; iris bright yellow. Feet greenish-yellow,the webs tinged with orange; claws black. The general colour of the plumageis pure white, excepting the back and wings, which are light pearl-grey.The first six quills are black towards their extremities, the first andsecond being almost entirely so, the sixth with only a small spot. Thetips of these feathers are white, that of the first having merely a narrowmargin of that colour, which gradually enlarges on the rest, the firstmoreover has near the end a long patch of white, the second a smaller oneon the inner web. The proportional size of the white marks on the outerprimaries varies in individuals. The other quills and secondaries are allwhite at the ends.

Length to end of tail 20 inches, to end of wings 22 1/4, to end of claws20 1/2; extent of wings 48; wing from flexure 15 1/2; tail 6; bill alongthe back 1 3/4, along the edge 2 5/8, depth at the base (8 3/4)/12, depthat the prominence 1/2; bare part of the tibia 3/4; tarsus 2; middle toe1 3/12, its claw (2 1/2)/12; hind toe (2 1/2)/12, its claw 1/12. Weight1 1/2 lbs.

Young bird, after first moult, shot on 26th November.

Bill black, base of lower mandible and edges of upper towards the base,livid flesh-colour. Edges of eyelids livid blue; iris hazel. Feet purplish-grey;claws brownish-black. The general colour of the plumage is dull white,mottled with greyish-brown beneath, on the back with large brownish-blackspots, the dark markings being central. Anterior to the eye is a crescentof greyish-black. The outer primary quills are black, the two first withoutwhite at the ends, the rest margined round the ends with that colour. Theabdominal and tibial feathers are white; the lower and upper tail-covertswhite, with brown spots.

Length to end of tail 18 3/8, to end of wings 20 1/2, extent of wings44 1/2; tarsus 2; middle toe 1 3/12, its claw 2/12. Weight 1 lb. 3 oz.

On a rocky island on the coast of Labrador, where this bird was breedingin great numbers, a comparatively small number of individuals only hadthe bill marked with the black ring, the others, although precisely similarin other respects, wanted that mark. This bird, although in many respectsprecisely similar to that which is usually named Larus canus in Europe,differs greatly in the size of the bill, which even in young birds is muchdeeper than in the oldest individuals of that species.

Female, from Dr. T. M. BREWER. Mouth 1 inch 1 twelfth in width; palatewith two very prominent papillate ridges, the space between which is coveredwith reversed papillae, its anterior part with five prominent lines, andmoderately concave; the posterior aperture of the nares oblong-linear,11 twelfths in length. Tongue 1 inch 5 twelfths long, emarginate and finelypapillate at the base; its sides nearly parallel as far as the middle,its breadth being 3 twelfths, then tapering to a narrow emarginate point,and trigonal. OEsophagus 7 inches long, extremely wide, its breadth being1 1/2 inches; that of the proventriculus 1 inch 9 twelfths. The stomachis rather small, elliptical, 1 inch 5 twelfths long, 1 inch 2 twelfthsbroad; its lateral muscles distinct and of moderate size, the lower prominent,the tendons large, the epithelium dense, with very prominent large rugae;the inner coat of the oesophagus is longitudinally plicate; the proventricularbelt 1 inch in breadth, with six broad plates. Intestine 30 inches long,its width at the upper part 5 twelfths, diminishing to 2 1/2 twelfths,coeca 3 twelfths long, 1 twelfth broad, 3 inches distant from the extremity,rectum 5 twelfths broad, with a globular cloaca 9 twelfths in diameter.The duodenum curves at the distance of 2 1/4 inches, advances toward theliver in the usual manner, and is afterwards very regularly coiled in anelliptical form, with 10 bends. Trachea 5 inches long, from 3 twelfthsto 2 1/2 twelfths in breadth, not flattened, its rings slightly osseous,130. Bronchi wide, of 20 half rings. The lateral and sterno-tracheal musclesare slender, and a slip on each side extends to the last half-ring of thetrachea.

Portions copyright © Richard R. Buonanno, 1995
Web version of John James Audubon’s work. “The Birds of America”
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