Due to their opportunistic and gregarious nature, gulls may be important reservoirs and vectors for anthropogenically derived fecal pathogens in coastal areas. We used ribotyping, a genotypic bacterial source tracking method, to compare populations of Escherichia coli among herring gulls Larus argentatus, great black-backed gulls L. marinus, wastewater, and landfill trash in New Hampshire and Maine, USA. Concentrations of E. coli in gull feces varied widely among individuals, but were generally high (6.0 x 10(1) to 2.5 x 10(9) g(-1) wet weight). Of 39 E. coli isolates from L. argentatus, 67% had banding patterns that were > or = 90% similar to those from wastewater and trash, whereas only 39% of 36 L. marinus isolates exhibited > or = 90% similarity to these sources. Strains of E. coli from gulls matched (> or = 90% similarity) more strains from wastewater (39% matching) than from trash (15% matching). E. coli isolates from L. marinus feces exhibited a greater diversity of banding patterns than did isolates from L. argentatus. There were more unique E. coli banding patterns in trash samples than in wastewater, and higher diversity indices in the former compared to the latter. These findings suggest that both species of gulls, especially L. argentatus, obtain fecal bacteria from wastewater and landfill trash, which they may transport to recreational beaches and waters. Our results also indicate that E. coli populations may vary widely between gull species, and between the anthropogenic habitats that they frequent, i.e. landfills and wastewater treatment facilities.