Out of all of the different birds in the world, there are few more vexing when it comes to identification than gulls. Two individual species in this grouping that can pose problems for birders are the Franklins Gull, and the Laughing Gull. While these birds certainly share many physical characteristics and can overlap in range, there are actually some fairly reliable ways to tell them apart.
The first thing to note when trying to make an identification between these two species is range. Franklin’s Gulls move through much of the continental united states and into central Canada. They aren’t typically found near the ocean coastlines and are much more likely to be in states such as Oklahoma and Nebraska. Laughing Gull on the other hand are mostly found along the Atlantic Ocean from New England down to the gulf of Mexico. They are not found inland with nearly the same regularity as Franklin’s Gulls, but they have been known to end up around the Great Lakes. Laughing Gulls are almost never found in Canada other than the eastern part of the country and typically very close to the US border. In sum, range can be a factor in determining species, but can’t always be used by itself since there is overlap and both species tend to wonder from time to time.
Moving on to the physical traits that separate these two birds, there is a slight size difference between the Franklins Gull and the Laughing Gull. On average, Franklin’s Gulls are smaller than Laughing Gulls with a length between 32 and 36 cm, and a wingspan between 85 and 95 cm. Laughing Gulls on average have a length between 39 and 46 cm with a wingspan between 92 and 120 cm; making for a small but noticeable difference if the birds are side by side. With just a single bird or single species present, size should not be used on its own to make an identification between these two species.
One of the first features that can be helpful to note when differentiating between these two birds is the bill Franklin’s Gulls and Laughing Gulls both have black bills in non breeding plumage and deep red bills in adult plumage, but the Franklin’s Gull’s bill is more petite looking than the bill of the Laughing which is quite robust and slightly curved.
Another feature that can be noted is the difference in the white near the eyes. Both have white that surround the eye, but Franklin’s Gulls have crescent shaped markings that will be thicker and more pronounced than those of the Laughing Gull. Additionally, the laughing Gull has breaks on both the right and the left side of the eye markings (looking more like two semi-circles) while the Franklin’s Gull will sometimes only have one break in the white crescent. When the two species are viewed side by side this difference is quite noticable.
Out of all of the different ID features used to tell these two birds apart, one of the most reliable is the wings. When they are folded, the Franklin’s Gull displays large white spots on the tips of the primary feathers, while the Laughing Gull’s primaries are either entirely black or show very little white. This feature is most noticeable in breeding plumage birds but can also be seen in non breeding adults as well.
Non breeding adult head pattern
Speaking of non breeding plumage birds, another ID point is the amount of black on the head. Franklin’s Gulls will have significantly more black almost creating a partial hood, while Laughing Gulls will only have black behind the eye. Again, this is only in non breeding plumage, as in breeding plumage the head color is basically identical.
The last difference to note is the underside color. Franklin’s Gulls sometimes show a light pink wash on the underside that the Laughing Gull typically does not. This feature can sometimes be difficult to pick out but can help lead to a correct identification if present. It is worth noting that many gull species can show this pink wash, so like many other identification points, it shouldn’t be used by itself but rather along with all of the other features.
Franklin’s Gull summary
Adult Franklin’s Gulls will have the following characteristics:
Slightly smaller size
More petite bill
Large white crescents around the eye
More defined white markings visible on the folded wings
Hooded appearance when the birds are in nonbreeding plumage
Pink wash on the underside of breeding adults
Laughing Gull summary
Adult Laughing Gulls will have the following characteristics:
Slightly larger size
Larger and slightly curved bill
Thinner white semi-circles around the eyes
Smaller or no white markings visible on the folded wings
Only marginal black on the head in non breeding plumage
No pink wash on the underside.
Although these two birds look extremely similar, there are ways to tell them apart. By regarding the characteristics listed above, it can be much easier to make an identification between a Franklin’s Gull and a Laughing Gull. We hope you found this post helpful, to see more posts like this please subscribe and be sure to check out the Badgerland Birding YouTube channel.