Western Gull (Larus occidentalis): Barry Kent MacKay

A mild little joke I have with fellow birders is that “I don’t do gulls.”   Among experienced birders and within the ornithological community there is a subset of experts, myself not among them, who specialize in gull identification.  While the general public may incorrectly call all gulls “seagulls”, and most birders will be more specific and identify what they can as to species, within the genus Larus there can be a bewildering array of individual birds that can be taxing to identify for a number of reasons. One simple one is that often the shade of grey or black on the back and top of the wings, the “mantel” can aid identification, but can differ in how dark or light it appear as a result of various lighting conditions.  The configuration of patterning on body plumage and, in adults especially, wing tips, can be important features but can vary according to amount of feather wear or molt.   Some species have subtly different geographic variations, or subspecies.  Various closely related species very often hybridize, and show characteristics of more than one species, even more than two species since their offspring may produce young with either of the two parent species, or a third species, or another hybrid!   Molting can create odd appearances with certain feathers, or tracts of feathers, reduced or missing.  Many species have several different plumages as they age, and also between breeding and non-breeding plumages.  Individual variation occurs within any given species, so that an individual may simply be aberrant.  Some species closely resemble each other in appearance. And finally, being strong flyers gulls have a habit of showing up in distant locations, far from where they “belong” or may be expected to be found.

In this oil painting I have portrayed the Western Gull, so named because it is found on North America’s west coast, rarely straying far inland, normally occurring from Baja California north to southern British Columbia.  But, as it nears the northern end of its range it often hybridizes with the Glaucous-winged Gull (L. glaucescens).  The Western Gull, with its very dark back, is the most commonly seen gull in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, while the Glaucous-winged Gull, with its light grey back, is the dominate gull in places like Vancouver.   I have shown two birds as they appeared in mid-June in the San Francisco area.  The swimming bird is an adult in typical breeding plumage, four or more years in age, but the upper bird is younger, having attained its “third cycle” plumage, with traces of black on the tail remaining.  My model for the carefully chosen upper bird lacked the row of greater wing-coverts on the wing.  I tried to show the slight variation in colour age and lighting conditions can create.  

Because they are along the California coast where a lot of movies and TV shows are made we often see Western Gulls appear in movies and TV shows, including those purporting to show coastal areas far from where any Western Gull has ever appeared.   The male defends a nest site (usually on an island, such as Alcatraz) for life.  Normally three eggs are laid in a ground nest.  The Western Gull eats fish, and other marine life, but is also a scavenger, notorious for seeking leftovers wherever we messy humans many leave them, and a pirate, swiping fish from pelicans and cormorants, a predator, known to kill and eat ducklings and even pigeons, and even a cannibal who might make a meal of a neighbour’s baby should it wander away from parental protection.  In short, they are opportunistic, like us.  They’re a relatively large gull, weighing about 800 to 1400 grams (1.8 to 3.1 pounds) and there is some migratory movement to the south in the fall and back north in the winter although they are seen year-round in most of their range.

The painting is in oils, on compressed hardboard and is about 24 X 18 inches.

Barry Kent MacKay

Bird Artist, Illustrator

Studio: (905) 472 9731


31 Colonel Butler Drive

Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada

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