Black-headed gull

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons  by Flickr upload bot.

 Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Flickr upload bot.

Source: Courtesy of Gidzy; CC BY 2.0 Generic License.


The Black-headed gull,Chroicocephalus ridibundus,previously Larus ridibundus belongs to the Order of birds known as the Charadiiformes and the family Laridae within that Order. The genus name derives from the Greek kroikos indicating coloured + kephale=head. The specific name of ridibundus derives from the Latin ridere -to laugh+abundare=abounds.

In the UK they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern because of recent breeding declines {1981-2007},and important non-breeding populations. In Ireland they are Red listed due to its rapidly declining and localized breeding population. In the UK there are an estimated 130,000 pairs in summer { 2,2 million birds in winter}. {Source BTO} 2014.

In Eurpoe they are not a bird of conservation concern and are regarded as being secure. The total European population is estimated at 1.3-1,7 million pairs {Summer}. The populations vary from country to country there follows a few selected examples. Austria there is an estimated 6,000-8,000 Breeding Pairs {BP}, Belgium 18,000-19,000 BP, Croatia 500-2,000 BP, France 29,100 32,500 BP. Germany,136,000-167,000 BP, Russia, 200,000-500,000 BP, Sweden 75,000-125,000 BP Spain,2,500-10,000 BP and Ukraine 35,000-70,000 BP. {Source Birdlife } } 2014.

 In the UK they are classed as a Migrant/resident breeder/winter visitor. They breed in Europe,north and central Asia north and east of North America,and they winter south to central Africa and east USA. However, the Black-headed gull is a rare visitor to North America,turning up in small numbers along the North Atalntic coast. Records began to increase in the mid-1990's and the first nesting attempts was discovered in NewFoundland in 1997. { source Cornell Lab of Ornithology}.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Faoileag-a-chinn-duibh, the Welsh, Garlan Penddu, the Irish Sleibhin and Croatian Rijecni galeb.

A selection of gulls.

Plate by Thorburn. 'British Birds' Courtesy of the BHL.

 Plate by Thorburn. 'British Birds' Courtesy of the BHL.

What are gulls.

Gulls or Seagulls are most closely related to the Terns of the family Sturnidae and only distantly to Auks and Skimmers,and even more distantly to Waders { Shore birds }. Until relatively recently most gulls were placed in the genus Larus,but now placed in several genera. The old name for the Gull is Mew.

They are typically medium to large birds,usually grey or white,often with black markings on the head and wings.The call of this group is typically a harsh wailing or squawking calls. the bills are longish and stout and they have webbed feet. Apart from the Kittiwake,gulls are generally coastal or inland species,rarely venturing far out to sea.

Some of the larger species take up to four years to attain their full adulthood plumage. However,some of the Gulls may attain their full adult plumage by the second year. Most gulls,especially the larger ones are resourceful,intelligent and inquisitive and many have a developed social structure.

Many species have adapted to live close to man and thrive around human habitats. Gulls have a cosmopolitan distribution. Most species are migratory moving to warmer climes during the winter months. The Franklin's Gull migrates long distances from Canada to winter in the south of South America.

Here we review the Black headed gull and as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Black-headed gull and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Source: Courtesy of princetonnature CC BY SA 3.0 unported license


Description at a glance---Despite its common name, it is not really a black headed bird,more chocolate brown { although from a distance it can look black},and in much of the first year it has a white head. The colour of the birds in full plumage is a white body,light grey wings.

In more detail---The bill is a deep vermilion red,less bright in winter. The iris is dark brown ,the eyelids are also a deep vermilion red {again less bright in winter}. A few white feathers nearly surround them. Behind the eye is a spot of white,and in winter a crescent shaped patch of black and grey in front of it,and another on the ear coverts. The head ,crown and neck all round the upper part,dark brown,in winter white,with only a dusky patch behind the eye.

Morris 'History of Birds' 1896, relates that dark colour appears very rapidly again in spring,the feathers are not shed,but their colour is changes. " In a bird kept at the garden of the Zoological Society, the metamorphosis was completed in five days. It began on the eleventh of March" The nape,white,chin and throat dark brown,in winter white, the breast white and sometimes a roseate tint,the back is a pale blue grey.

 The wings have the first quill feather the longest, the greater wing coverts,pale blue grey. The first primary is black on the lower part of the outer web,the tips and outer margin of the inner web, the rest of it white, the three next are white on the shafts and the greater part of the outer webs,but gradually margined with black, the ends, except the extreme point,which is white,and half their inner webs black,passing into white,and half their inner webs black,passing into blackish grey near the base of the feathers,. The fourth is white on the outer webs,grey on the inner, but edged with black. The fifth and sixth are grey on both webs, the edge on the inner and the tip black. The tertiaries are grey.

The tail white, the upper tail coverts white. The legs and toes are a deep vermilion red,and are more dull in winter. Both sexes are alike.

Their flight is easy,noiseless and buoyant and they sometimes hover for a short time over their prey and then dart on to it in the water. They do not usually resort to swimming although they are very capable surface swimmers. On the land they run about in a light graceful manner.

Black-headed gull in summer plumage.

Taken in Belgium

 Taken in Belgium

Source: Courtesy of Hans Hillewaert; CC BY -SA 3.0 unported license

General and historical information

Most inland districts are frequented by this gull,which was formerly referred to as the 'Pewit gull' and 'Laughing gull'. It is widely distributed here in the UK and probably one of the best known of our 'Seagulls',although it may be properly be referred to {as with other small groups of gull} as Marsh gull. It is seen as much inland situations than Marine ones.

It feeds on pastures along with the Rook and other Gulls,it will follow the plough,and it may be seen perching in trees.It breeds among other places on Wetland Reserves,and from these may fly some distance to obtain food. The species is omnivorous in its diet,inland feeds on grubs,especially Wire worms, insects, earthworms,freshwater fish,grain and any scraps of human left overs are suffice. At the sea coast it will take fish,crustaceans and various odds and ends it may find about the harbour walls or vessels.

It seeks food both when swimming ,fluttering above the water or when walking on the shore or on land. This species is much more Tern-like in its habits than the larger species of Gull. It is also of great service on the land to agriculturists, by consuming agricultural pests such as the Wire worm.

 " This day with joy my heart doth beat-

An emblem of spring's return,

I saw by General Askew's seat,

The bonny house of Pallinsburn."


" A pool is there some acres wide,

Enclosed by Trees,with water full,

And,swarming on the rippling tide,

We seethe little cawing gull"

 " The sixth of March we see them come,

Although at nights they do not stay,

Till floods subside and give them room,

Where they may on the islands lay"

" We see them soaring overhead,

We see them sailing on the lake,

Or following the ploughman's tread,

The little creeping worms to take"


" For five long months we see them stay,

But when the yellow leaves appear,

They take their wings and fly away-

An emblem of the failing year"

 " But here I do my rhyme forsake,

Should poets view the scene,

Some better verses they may make,

About the gulls on yonder lake,

And fields and forests green"

A letter from P.Selby to a Miss Pulleine, on March 12 1856, makes for interesting reading,not solely because of its content, but also the fact that such letters were wrote between naturalists who were interested about the wildlife of each others neighbourhoods. There follows one such letter

" Dear Miss Pulleine, My daughter Mrs Luard has intimated to me your wish to obtain fro Mr. Morris,who is engaged with work on British Ornithology,an answer to some queries respecting the gull which resorts during the breeding season to the pond at Pallinsburn."

" The bird in question belongs to the family Laridae and to the {then} genus Larus. It is the Larus ridibundus of Linnaeus,and is known by the provincial names of Laughing gull,pewit gull,black-cap gull and pickmore etc.. During the autumn and winter it is common on the coast,but destitute of the black head,which it assumes periodically,as in many Terns and Lesser gulls,immediately previous to departure for its breeding quarters."

 " The bird in question belongs to the family Laridae and to the {then} genus Larus. It is the Larus ridibundus of Linnaeus,and is known by the provincial names of Laughing gull,pewit gull,black-cap gull and pickmore etc.. During the autumn and winter it is common on the coast,but destitute of the black head,which it assumes periodically,as in many Terns and Lesser gulls,immediately previous to departure for its breeding quarters."

" By the middle of March the great body that annually resorts to the pond at Pallinsburn have made their appearance there, and are soon engaged in the task of incubation,and by the end of July have again departed,with their young to the coasts,and their black hood being thrown off,and the head white,with the exception of a few grey spots behind the ears."

As to their number, they may be reckoned in thousands,and of late years colonies have been resorting to points at Dunse Castle and at Paston near Yetholme. I can trace them to have resorted at Pallinsburn for upwards of a hundred years,and probably their first appearance was at a much earlier period. Any further information you may wish I shall, if able , be happy to supply,and

I am with respect -Yours truly P.Selby

Black-headed Gull in flight.

Taken in Bansin Germany

 Taken in Bansin Germany

Source: Courtesy of Benjamin Janecke CC BY -SA 3.0 unported license

Black-headed gull in winter plumage.

Dal dalswildlifesite.com 

Historical notes about diet and procurement of food.

The subject of their diet as been briefly touched upon here we look at the observations of Morris on the subject. Morris 'A History of British Birds' 1867, makes the following notes of the birds diet and the means of procuring food.

" They frequently hunt for insects in the twilight and have been seen so late as between nine and ten.o'clock at night and heard returning from their forage at still later hours. They feed on small fish and insects,cockchaffers,mayflies,beetles,moths and also on slugs,worms,shrimps and other crustaceans,and if need be on water plants. The first named,if of freshwater kinds,they hawk for at a height of ten to twelve feet in the air and on desiring the object they change course and skimming the surface,pick it up."

" They almost always follow the coarse of the stream,and in winter advance up rivers in the morning ,going downwards again towards night. In the Spring months they resort too ploughed fields,following the plough in quest of worms and insects,and in summer repair to water.During the day many of them disperse up and down throughout the corn,pasture and fallow fields in search of food. These they beat with great diligence,traversing them again and again,at a height of about twelve feet as before. When any suitable object meets their eye, they immediately round to it,alight on the ground,and generally keeping their wings extended upwards, seize it."

 Morris goes on to add the 'Ghost moth' is a favourite object of pursuit on still summer evenings,when it hovers over the grass and swarms above trees. " It is indeed a most amusing and interesting sight to witness the elegant evolutions of these beautiful birds when in pursuit of large moths,often brushing the surface of the ground with their downy breasts,and generally capturing with facility the moth as it hovers at a distance of from one or two feet from the earth."

" occasionally,however, the bird misses its aim,and the moth,by rapid motion of the gull,is struck to the ground. The bird,however, nothing dismayed,hovers for a few seconds over the retreat of its fallen prey,and if it perceives it embedded in the grass, pounces upon it, or if disappointed flies off in search of another prey"

Nest and eggs of the Black-headed Gull

 Source: Courtesy of Algridas CC BY -SA 3.0 unported license.

Nest and eggs.

Sir William Jardine writes of the breeding habits of the Black-headed gull " They are particular in the choice of breeding places,at least some of which we would think suited for them,are passed or deserted,and others more unlikely are selected. We possess a reedy Loch which was for many years a haunt of these birds, but the edges were planted and they left it. Ten years afterwards,and when the plantation had grown up, a few pairs returned,and in time increased into a colony,where an artificial piece of water was made by damming up a narrow pass in an exclusive muir,nearly two miles distant. Thither the gulls resorted the following spring,leaving their ancient ground,and they have been increasing in numbers for some years past"

The Black-headed gull is an inland breeding species where it resorts to marshes,wet moors and meres and wetland reserves already mentioned. These may be varying distances from the sea. Dixon 'British Sea Birds',1896, reveals " Sometimes the breeding places are in well wooded districts and often surrounded by trees and bushes. The 'Gulleries' are visited for nesting purposes in March and April and the birds return to the same spot year after year,they probably pair for life"

The nest is merely a scrape lined with sparse vegetation, but built up at times into a substantial mound,placed on the ground or in low vegetation. The eggs which are generally a dull green-grey,blotched with brown are subject to variation in colouring. Indays gone by large numbers of eggs were gathered for culinary purposes. The eggs were systematically taken,and the bird always allowed eventually to sit upon their final clutch. Many eggs were passed of for those of the Lapwing,by unscrupulous dealers,notably it would seem at Leadenhall Market.

 The eggs are incubated for a period of 23-26 days and the task is carried out by both parents. The young are ready to fledge in a further 34-36 days. the chicks are born with their eyes open and covered in down. Although they are able to stand within a day they usually remain quiet in the nest for a week or so.

When disturbed at the nest the birds rise in fluttering crowds,drifting noisily to and fro anxious for the safety of their eggs or defenceless young. They are very protective of their young and stoop and dash at an intruder again and again. As soon as the brood are able to fly, they scatter about the area to feed on moist meadows and such places. They are then taken by their parents towards the coast

Gull with juvenile.

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio. Image taken at Minsmere,Suffolk, England.

 Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Snowmanradio. Image taken at Minsmere,Suffolk, England.

Source: courtesy of Gemma Longman CC BY-SA 2.0 unported license

Young birds.

The plumage of the young birds is whitish mixed with brown and they lack the black head of the summer adult. Selby notes, " I observe when they first return in the spring of the year, that nearly half the birds have white heads,which gradually turn black while they stay. This leads me to the conclusion that they do not get the black head until about a year old"

The young birds at first are covered with down of white, grey and brown. In he young bird of the year, the bill is yellowish brown with a tinge of red, the tip darker. The head on the crown and back is yellowish brown with some white, in winter white streaked with grey and before the eye is a crescent shaped spot of deep brown,and another upon the ear coverts. The throat and breast white,with a faint blush of pink.

The back on the upper part, bluish-grey, the lesser wing coverts bluish-grey mottled with yellowish brown. The primaries have their outer webs and tips a dusky black, the inner ones white. The tertiaries,yellowish grey,edged with white. The tail greyish white on the inner part with a broad band or bar of dusky black at the end, narrowed in winter. The legs and toes yellowish brown,webs are also yellowish brown.

The young birds were formerly considered 'good' eating,and some proprietors used to make £50-£80 a year from their sale.

First year black-headed gull in flight.

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons By ToNToNy. Taken at Loch Fleet Nature Reserve Scotland.

 Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons By ToNToNy. Taken at Loch Fleet Nature Reserve Scotland.

Source: Courtesy of John Haslem { Scotland} CC By 2.0 generic license

Conservation Status UK-2021

UK- They are on the Amber List of conservation concern.

Europe-They are a species of Least Concern. 

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