Okoboji seagulls aren’t sea gulls at all

There is no such thing as a seagull. All gulls have proper names, none of which is sea.

We posted this Noon Nature Fact on our Facebook page last week and had several comments on it. I knew that there were lots of species of gulls, but honestly didn’t realize that none were technically called seagulls until a volunteer brought in a newspaper article that concluded with this interesting factoid.

Looking up gulls, you’ll find that many look similar. They have mainly white bodies with wings that are gray, some with black feathers on their tails. They also have orange or yellow bills that are slightly hooked on the end, great for eating fish.

However, if you look closer, there are definitely differences. Some have completely black heads, while others are completely white. Some have white legs, some orange, some black. The bonaparte’s gull — which winters in the southern U.S., migrates through the northern U.S. and breeds in Canada — even has a black bill.

Photo of a bonaparte's gull with its chick

Bonaparte’s gull

Like many birds, if you take a moment, you can see the subtle differences between species.

According to the Iowa Great Lakes Bird Checklist, created by the now disbanded Northern Iowa Prairie Lakes Audubon Society, the two commonly sighted gulls in the region are the Franklin’s gull and the ring-billed gull.

Franklin’s gull

Photo of a Franklin's gull

Franklin’s gull

With a black head, you might think that it would be obvious when you see a Franklin’s gull. However, some heads are darker than others, and when they fly as a flock overhead, most people wouldn’t even notice this subtle characteristic.

Photo of Franklin's gulls flying

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, via Wikimedia Commons

These gulls migrate through the middle of the U.S. to breeding grounds commonly in North Dakota, Montana and Canada. They love the Midwest because they will follow plows to eat exposed earthworms, insects and mice.

Franklin’s gulls have floating nests that start to sink as the material on the water surface decays, so the parents continually add new nest material until one or two weeks before departing. Older chicks also add nest material from anything they can reach nearby.

Ring-billed gull

Photo of a ring-billed gull

Photo by Wer-Al Zwowe, via Wikimedia Commons

The ring-billed gull is found pretty much throughout North America, from Mexico all the way to northern Canada and are considered the gulls most likely to see far away from coastal areas. They like to stay in the interior of the U.S., near freshwater, so the Iowa Great Lakes is the perfect habitat for them.

A black band around its yellow bill distinguishes adult ring-billed gulls from other gulls.

These gulls are omnivores, eating fish, insects, worm, rodents, grain and even garbage, like French fries and other discarded human food.

Ring-billed gulls nest on the ground, near freshwater, on low, sparsely vegetated areas.

Other gulls

Some other gulls that you might spot in northwest Iowa that are uncommon but expected are the bonaparte’s and herring gulls.

(Check out four ways to tell apart swans and snow geese.)


  1. Bev Van Der Weide on June 13, 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Any gull that lives on a coast is a seagull, regardless of what type of gull it is

    • kiley on June 25, 2018 at 3:29 pm

      That’s definitely what people call them; there’s just no gull with the proper name seagull! It’s so interesting!

  2. Jeanette Meyer on May 11, 2018 at 10:25 am

    Very interesting! Had no idea there are no sea gulls!! Thanks for info!!

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