Photo Credit: George W. Robinson © California Academy of Sciences

SCIENTIFIC NAME: Leucophaeus pipixcan

OTHER NAMES:  Prairie dove

STATUS: Rare in winter and fall, occasional in spring in Gulf Coast region. Inland (mostly Tennessee Valley), rare to uncommon in fall and rare in spring and winter. 

DESCRIPTION:  Franklin’s gulls (Larus pipixcan) are about 14.5 inches in height and have a wingspan of about 36 inches.  They have a black hood in breeding plumage and a smudgy half-hood in winter.  The bill has some deep red coloration and the breast has a pink to rosy hue during the breeding season.  Differentiating the Franklin's gull from the laughing gull can be done by several distinguishing features.  The Franklin’s gull’s body, bill and legs are smaller than the laughing gull.  The bill of the Franklin’s gull does not droop at the tip as it does on the laughing gull.  The Franklin’s gull also has more apparent white eye rings and it displays more white on the primary tips of its wings.  The song is a shrill, laughing kuk-kuk-kuk, similar to the laughing gull’s, but higher pitched.

DISTRIBUTION:  Nests primarily along lakes and marshes in the northern prairie regions of central Canada and north central United States.  Recent evidence suggests that they have expanded their breeding range into parts of the Rocky Mountains.  They migrate to the Texas coast, continuing along the Caribbean coast of Mexico, with a final destination of southern Peru and northern Chile.  They are rare visitors to the coast of Alabama and Louisiana.

HABITAT:  They can be found in prairie freshwater marshes and marshy lakes during the breeding season.  The remainder of the year, they can be found on seacoast, lakes, rivers, mudflats, agricultural fields, bays, and estuaries.

FEEDING HABITS: Franklin’s gulls feed primarily on terrestrial and aquatic insects.  They have also been observed feeding on small species of fish in ponds and sloughs.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Nesting occurs in large, noisy colonies.  Floating nests are constructed of a variety of vegetation and are anchored to a platform of dead reeds.  Nest material is continually added throughout the nesting period until fledging of the young occurs.  Breeders will desert nests if disturbed.  Breeding generally occurs from early May to early June.  Both sexes share incubation responsibilities during an average incubation period of 18 to 20 days.  The nestlings are semi-precocial and are tended by both adults.  Franklin’s gulls may nest in association with other colonial nesters such as the black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) and eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis).    


Nature Serve Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life, 2002. Version 1.6. Arlington, Virginia, USA: Nature Serve. Available:

Terres, J.K., 1980.  The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Author: Frank Allen, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries