American Herring Gull (smithsonianus)

(last update: October 30, 2015)

Amar Ayyash (US)
Bruce Mactavish (Canada)
Dave Brown (Canada)
Mars Muusse (Netherlands)

American Herring Gull 4cy June

The Peterson Reference Guides


- Steve N.G. Howell / Jon Dunn -

Below is a copy of chapter 25 about American Herring Gull, illustrated with images from this website. "we" in the text below refers to the original authors. If any errors occur in this text, please let me know and mail to marsmuusseatgmaildotcom.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus)



Molts of migrants in w. N. America average up to a month or so later than those of populations breeding in e. N. America (HoweIl pers. obs.). Some average plumage differences within populations also occur, at least in first-cycle birds. We discuss these differences below under so-called West Coast types and East Coast types, while recognizing that this simplifies the distribution of the plumage types; more study is needed on patterns of plumage variation in American Herring Gulls. Based on specimens, birds breeding on the Great Lakes and the New England coast average slightly paler (nearer Kodak 4-5; n = 20) than Alaska breeders and birds wintering in Calif. (nearer Kodak 5; n = 30), but such differences not likely to be noticeable in the field.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, February 01 2005, Newfoundland, Canada (Jeff Poklen). Pale grey upperparts, staring pale eyes, bold winter streaking concentrated in the hindneck. Note bill size and shape.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) 7th cycle M54 (formerly C45) March 05 2012, NH Beach (Keith Mueller). Banded as chick in 2005. Note pale grey upperparts, pink legs, staring pale eye, much black in wingtip, and bill size and shape. Note broad black band on bill. In winter orbital ring may look darkish. Small-billed birds (probably females) can be confused with Thayer's Gull; note relatively small white primary tips and extensive black on underside of P10.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) 6th cycle E81 January 01 2012, Newcastle Commons, NH (Lauren Kras). Banded as chick in 2006. Orange-yellow orbital ring (may turn suffused pinkish in winter in some birds). Fine peppering in iris in E81.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, November 09 2012, Park Desoto, FL (Dina). P8 fully grown. Small-billed adults with speckled iris may suggest Thayer's Gull; note relatively small white primary tips and wingtip pattern (best seen in spread wing). Also note pinkish bill base and blackish gonys mark, both atypical of adult winter Thayer's.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, March 10 2012, Rockland Maine (Jonathan Mays). Note bill size (short, probably female) and shape, staring yellow eye, with orange-yellow orbital ring, Still some black on bill.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult T47 September 18 2013, Rye, NH (Norm Cox & Linda Stesienko). Banded as adult in July 2010. Note pale grey upperparts, bill size and shape (large, pointing to a male), staring yellow eye and black wingtip (white primary tips reduced by wear). Active moult in central primaries by September.

Adult Cycle.
Complete PB molt (June/July-Nov./Jan.) produces adult basic plumage: head, neck, and underparts white; head, neck, and sometimes upper chest with variable (usually moderate to heavy) dusky streaking and mottling. Upperparts pale gray (Kodak 4-5) with black wingtips (black on outer web of P10 and sometimes P9 extends to primary coverts; P4 sometimes with limited black); white scapular and tertial crescents; and white tips to outer primaries. Uppertail coverts and tail white. White trailing edge to secondaries (often hidden at rest) and inner primaries breaks into discrete white tips on outer primaries; P5-P8 typically have narrow white tongue-tips and black subterminal bands, and P10 has distinct white mirror; P10 mirror largest on ne. coastal populations, and these also often have a P9 mirror rarely seen on West Coast migrants. (Jonsson and Mactavish 2001; Macpherson 1961) Birds wintering in e. Canada also average less black in wingtips than those wintering on Great Lakes (Jonsson & Mactavish 2001) and in w. N. America. (Howell pers. obs.) Underwings typically show blackish wingtips (with P10 or P9-P10 mirrors, white tongue-tips out to P8) cleanly demarcated from pale gray, white-tipped inner primaries and secondaries; however, some birds in e. Canada have relatively washed-out underside to wingtip. Eyes staring pale lemon (rarely flecked dusky, especially in the West, (Howell pers. obs.) and exceptionally dull olive; perhaps indicating hybridism?), orbital ring orange to yellow-orange (can be dark gray in winter and pinkish in transition). Bill yellow (often pinkish to greenish basally in winter) with orange-red to red gonydeal spot and, in winter, often a dark distal band. Legs flesh pink, often paler during later stages of PB molt. Partial PA molt (Oct.-Mar./Apr.) produces adult alternate plumage: head and neck clean white (usually by Feb./Mar. on East Coast, by Mar./Apr. on West Coast); white primary tips can be lost through wear. By spring, orbital ring yellow-orange to reddish orange, legs brighter flesh pink (becoming lemon yellow on some birds during at least Mar-Apr. (Howell pers. obs.)), bill bright lemon yellow with red gonydeal spot, lacking dark distal marks.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, January 03 2012, Seattle, WA (Amar Ayyash). Plain grey greater primary coverts indicate full adult. Note pale grey upperparts and wingtip with relatively little white: no mirror on P9, small mirror on P10.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, February 20 2007, Bluff-Point State Park, CT (Mats Wallin). Neatly demarcated black wingtips above and below. Note also staring pale yellow eye.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, January 08 2013, Niagara River (Amar Ayyash). Limited black in wingtip is found mainly in ne North America: thayeri pattern on P9 and P10 and very deep pale tongues on outer primaries. Only two spots on P5 in stead of band.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, October 28 2007, Monterey Bay, CA (Jeff Poklen). Although in active moult, limited white in wingtip; this is typical of adults wintering in w North America. Old P10 with small mirror, confined to innerweb only and black on outerweb of P4 > Note short pale tongue on P10 in right wing's underside.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, February 24 2008, Newfoundland (Bruce Mactavish). Full sub-terminal black band on P10. White tongue on P10 innerweb >1/2 length of the visible feather, ends sharply, abrupt, not gradually (oblique). Mirror on P9, and black on P9 does not reach primary coverts. No obvious bayonets on P6-P8. P5 with ill-defined W-pattern.

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) adult, February 10 2008, Dryden, NY (Mike). Showing classic smithsonianus upperwing, never present in European birds: long pale tongue on P10 ends curved, very steep, leaving a narrow medial band (almost thayeri pattern), yet in combination with full sub-terminal band. No mirror on P9, 'bayonets' on P6-P8, white moons on P7-P8, W-shape on P5.


East coast birds

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) sub-adult N22 June 30 2010, Jenness Beach - Rye, NH. Picture: Lauren Kras.
American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) R03 4CY, June 22 2015, Newcastle Commons, NH. Picture: Robbie Prieto.
American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) 4cy, June 01 2007, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Great Lakes birds

American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) 3rd cycle (4CY) xxxx-xxxxx June 06 2015, Manitowoc, IL. Picture: Amar Ayyash.
American Herring Gull (smithsonianus) sub-adult, June 06 2015, Manitowoc, IL. Picture: Amar Ayyash.