Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- There are 50 species of seagulls worldwide, belonging to the bird family Laridae.
- Seagulls are intelligent, adaptable birds, found not only on coasts but also inland waters and bogs.
- Seagulls are omnivorous and can eat a wide variety of food, from human leftovers to fish and crustaceans.
- Seagulls can have a lifespan of 7-49 years, depending on the species.
- Some seagulls migrate to warmer places during winter, while others move inland or stay in their natural habitat.
Seagulls are intelligent, beautiful, and piratical birds. Some are completely at home in a marine environment but they often migrate in winter and travel inland in severe weather. As of now, there are 50 species of seagulls worldwide.
Seagulls and terns belong to the bird family Laridae. They can be difficult to tell apart as they can change plumage throughout the year and one single species can vary in color!
Luckily, we have a guide to help you out. You can find out more about these fascinating sea pirates below!
1. Galapagos Lava Gull (Leucophaeus fuliginosus)
The Galapagos Lava Gull is the world’s rarest seagull. At the moment, there are only 300-600 of them left. They all live on just four of the Galapagos Islands and nowhere else.
Their favorite menu includes sea lion placentas, baby turtles, and iguanas. On the other hand, their predators include owls, frigate birds, and even other lava gulls.
Unlike other seagulls, Galapagos Lava Gulls like their privacy. When they nest on the ground, they like to stay at least 100 m (328 ft) from their nearest gull neighbor!
Additionally, Galapagos Lava Gulls live for 49 years. They are classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN.
2. Great Black-Backed Gull (Larus marinus)
The Great Black-Backed Gull is the largest gull in the world, with an attitude to match. They’re so big that they even eat other water birds such as puffins and grebes! They’re often called “Kings of the Seagulls.”
You can find them all along the East coast of America. They’re known as the Gavión Atlántico in Spanish.
Great Black-Backed Gulls have red spots on their beaks. This is common with some other species of seagull, too. Gulls get the spot when they reach maturity at about 4 years old.
Moreover, they only live for 14 years, which is short compared to other long-lived seagulls.
3. Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)
At first sight, Herring Gulls look similar to Great Black-Backed Gulls. However, Herring Gulls are smaller and bear a gray back. They’re known to change colors, too, as their first winter plumage is different from their second winter plumage!
These large seagulls are very noisy. They like nothing better than to scavenge in trash. They are omnivorous and will eat almost anything. You can find Herring Gulls all around the coast of the UK.
Listen to the Herring Gull call! below!
BY: Marie-Lan Taÿ Pamart / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons
4. Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus vetula)
Kelp gulls are also known as Cape gulls. They hail from South Africa, especially Namibia, and can be found in Morocco. They’re fairly rare in the Northern Hemisphere such as Britain and France.
They look pretty similar to Herring Gulls but they are slightly lighter. You can recognise a Kelp Gull by its blue-gray leg color, small dark eyes, and heavy build.
5. Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus)
The Mediterranean Gull weighs only 8.82 oz (250 g). It has a charming call which is much squeakier compared to some of the bigger gulls! Its scientific name means “to have a black head” in Latin.
In its first winter, a young Mediterranean Gull will be flecked with different shades of gray.
In its second winter, it will have a light, almost white plumage with no black head. It’s only in the summer that the black cap appears on the Mediterranean Gull’s head!
6. Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides)
The Iceland Gull breeds in the Arctic, but overwinters further south in countries such as Britain. It is mostly white in color. It has three separate subspecies, one of which is Thayer’s Gull.
It’s fussier than most gulls – it only eats fish, either alive or dead. They dive elegantly for fish, skimming the surface of the water.
Breeding Iceland Gulls develop a red ring around the eye. When they aren’t in the mood for love, they have pale and delicately flecked feathers.
They like to nest on steep cliffs in colonies of 50 to 100 pairs. These cliffs can be 1000 ft (304.8 m) high. This only makes the gulls safer from predators that would otherwise steal their eggs.
Iceland Gulls are quite happy to steal the eggs and young of other birds, such as the Thick Billed Murre.
7. Little Gull (Larus minutes)
The Little Gull is the world’s smallest gull, which is unsurprising with a name like that! It eats water invertebrates and weighs just 5.29 oz (150 g).
The Little Gull doesn’t live near the sea like you would expect! It lives on ponds and inland lakes. You can find most of them in the USA’s Great Lakes.
If you’re having trouble finding one, try looking in a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, a slightly larger species of gull. Juvenile Little Gulls have an “M” pattern on their upper wing. Adults have charcoal underwings and gray primary feathers.
8. Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
The Kittiwake doesn’t like to scavenge on rubbish tips like the others. They prefer a posh diet of seafood – fish, worms and shrimps.
Kittiwakes enjoy the sea so much, they won’t even come back to land for the winter. They prefer to stay out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Adults bear a silvery gray coat and a white underside. They have a distinctive call which gives them their name. You can check it out below!
BY: Lawrence Shove / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons
9. Caspian Gull (Larus cachinnans)
The Caspian Gull lives in the Caspian Sea area and the Black Sea. For a long time, the true numbers of Caspian Gulls were not known as it was so hard to distinguish this gull from other seagulls.
If you’d like to have a go at spotting the difference, try looking at the picture in this research paper about identifying Caspian Gulls! Apparently Caspian Gulls like to carry their head slightly downward, for one!
If you hear one call it’s more of a giveaway – they sound a bit like a donkey! Maybe that’s why their scientific name means “laughing gull.”
Check out this video to hear the call of a Caspian gull:
10. Common Gull (Larus canus)
Despite its name, the Common Gull is not actually that common, at least inland. It prefers the coast. It looks like a prettier version of the Herring Gull, with greenish legs and a yellow beak.
In the summer the Common Gull adults have a white front. Juvenile gulls in their first winter have a mixture of flecked gray, black, and white plumage.
When the Common Gull does come inland, its favorite places to hang out are housing estates and sports fields.
11. Lesser Black-Backed Gull (Larus fuscus)
The Lesser Black-Backed Gull has a languid, long call. It’s smaller than a Herring Gull and enjoys coasts and beachfronts.
Lesser Black-Backed Gulls don’t get their adult plumage until they are four or five years old! Youngsters and non-breeding adults form clubs, where they hang out and preen. Preening is when they clean and oil their feathers.
These gulls are so closely related to Herring Gulls that they sometimes hybridize with them and produce young. This happens quite often on Appledore Island in Maine, US.
In the US, you can find them on the coastlines of Florida and the Mid Atlantic States. You can also find them in Europe and the UK.
12. Black-Headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)
The Black-Headed Gull doesn’t actually have a black head. It’s actually chocolate brown if you look closely. Funny enough, it doesn’t even have a dark head for most of the year!
They prefer to be inland. I often see them swooping over the ducks as people throw bread on the canal. They’re a pretty little gull with a streamlined shape.
Additionally, their noisy calls sound like a power tool. They like to hang out in groups and roost together.
13. Dolphin Gull (Leucophaeus scoresbii)
The stocky, red-legged, red-beaked Dolphin Gull hails from South America and the Falklands. It has a distinctive red and white ringed eye, which makes it seem like it has an angry expression.
The Dolphin Gull likes rocky habitats, and can be spotted scavenging around sea mammal and seabird colonies. It will eat placentas, carrion, and even marine mammal poop! Yuck.
It has a squeaky, screaming call! Baby Dolphin Gulls can recognise their own parents’ call out of all the other Dolphin Gulls in the colony.
14. California Gull (Larus californicus)
California Gulls live in inland lakes in North America and Canada.
The California Gull is the state bird of Utah. It holds the title as it helped Mormon settlers deal with a plague of crickets! There is even a monument to them in Salt Lake City because of this, called the “Miracle of the Gulls.”
Non-breeding adults have streaking on their head. Adult birds have the red spot on the lower part of their beak. When mature, they have a small black ring on their yellow beak.
They’re agile enough to snatch insects out of the air. That doesn’t stop them from begging for sandwiches in parks, though.
15. Sabine’s Gull (Xema sabini)
The Sabine’s Gull is stunning to look at, with a sculpted slender silhouette, a charcoal head edged with black, and a red eye ring. It is so small it is almost classed as a tern.
They are able to hover over the sea to catch crustaceans and fish, or over mudflats in the Arctic in the summer. Here, they swoop down to catch insects.
Sabine’s Gulls have a trait that is rare in gulls.They will pretend to have an injured wing to lead a predator away from their nest!
They don’t seem to live that long for a gull. The longest lived Sabine’s Gull recorded was only 8 years old.
16. Bonaparte’s Gull (Chroicocephalus Philadelphia)
Unlike other inland gulls, Bonaparte’s Gull nests in trees in the Arctic taiga. Most other inland species nest on the ground. This gull enjoys a treehouse!
They go to the boreal forests of Canada and Southern Alaska to breed in marshy openings in the forest. Their main diet in the breeding season is zooplankton and flying insects.
When they migrate across America, they can show up anywhere if their migration is interrupted by bad weather. This includes sewage treatment plants!
In the non-breeding months, they eat fish. They collect in great numbers on the Niagara River when it is time for Emerald Shiner Fish to spawn.
17. Hartlaub’s Gull (Chroicocephalus hartaubii)
Hartlaub’s Gull has a large range. It is endemic to the coastline of South Africa and Namibia. It’s also known as the King Gull. If you want to know how to say it in Portuguese, it’s gaivota-de-hartlaub.
It’s a small gull with a call like a crow’s “khaa, khaa!” Hartlaub’s Gull is named after the German physician and zoologist Gustav Hartlaub.
The best place to find a breeding colony is on Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa. Over there, they are noisy neighbors – many of the local noise complaints are about their calls!
18. White-Eyed Gull (Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus)
This small gull is one of the world’s rarest gulls, with a breeding population of between 4,000-6,500 pairs. It lives near the Red Sea. The main threats to its survival are oil pollution and human pressure, which have led to it being classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN.
Adults have a dark hood with what looks like white eye makeup around their eye! It likes to breed on remote islands and coral reefs.
Its call is a raucous “kyaa kyaa” sound.
19. Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea)
The handsome white Ivory Gull is classed as a small gull, but it is actually between a crow and a goose in size.
It lives in the High Arctic ice floes and its nearest neighbors are polar bears. It enjoys munching on polar bear kills, afterbirths, fish, and whatever else it can find that will keep it warm!
You will usually have to travel to the High Arctic to see them. If you’re lucky, one may come further South than its usual range, ending up as far south as California or New Jersey. When this happens, bird watchers get very excited.
Ivory Gulls are quite vulnerable as a species due to their habitat of sea ice, which is melting.
20. Audouin’s Gull (Ichthyaetus audouinii)
Named after French ornithologist Jean Victor Audouin, the Audouin’s Gull is a rare gull only found around the Mediterranean Sea.
An adult Audouin’s Gull has a snowy chest with a soft ombre gray fading towards its tail. The beak is red. In flight, you can recognize them by their pale form with dark wingtips.
It lays 2-3 eggs in a ground nest on rocky cliffs. This gull can glide for longer periods than other similar gulls.
21. Vega Gull (Larus argentatus vegae)
Also known as the Siberian Herring Gull, the Vega Gull has a clear call of long single squawks.
Taxonomists argue about whether the Vega Gull is a subspecies of the Lesser Black Backed or American Herring Gull. It’s also debated whether it’is a separate species. This happens a lot in the world of gulls!
Vega Gulls like to overwinter at the Japanese port of Choshi Harbor. Birders have a complicated color scale of grays to work out if what they are looking at is a true Vega Gull.
22. Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla)
The Laughing Gull is a slender gull with a small head. It prefers to stay out in coastal areas and on mudflats.
It has a wide range, being common on the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, Central and South America as well as the Atlantic Coast of the US.
The only way to tell them apart from the Franklin’s Gull is that the Franklin’s Gull is slightly short, and has fatter eye arcs and bigger white spots on its wingtips.
23. Andean Gull (Chroicocephalus serranus)
The Andean Gull is found, unsurprisingly, in the Andes! It’s a good-looking hooded gull. The hood is actually more like a mask as it only covers the head and not the neck.
It prefers to stay inland in marshes, bogs, wetlands and creeks. You can also find them over farmland. Its normal range is Ecuador, Argentina, Peru, and Chile.
Unlike other gulls, it breeds at high elevations in the mountains.
24. Pacific Gull (Larus Pacificus)
The Pacific Gull breeds in Australia and Tanzania. It is a large gull. It faces competition from the Kelp Gull, which was introduced to Australia in the 1940’s. This has had a negative impact on the population.
Its wings are black with a long white trailing edge. It has white underparts, a white head and a massive yellow bill with a red spot on it.
The Pacific Gull has two distinct calls – “ow ow” and “awk awk.” It’s not as tame as other gulls and prefers to stay away from humans. The Pacific Gull’s favorite habitat is coastal bays and shorelines.
25. Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus)
The Glaucous Gull is a large, pale gull. It’s hard to distinguish from the Iceland Gull but it bears a larger beak, square head, and a fierce expression.
They enjoy carrion, scraps, and shellfish. They are mainly a scavenging gull rather than a hunting gull.
Glaucous Gulls are the second biggest gull in the world after the Great Black Backed Gull. Their natural habitat is the Arctic.
26. Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)
The Silver Gull is the most common gull in Australia. It’s smaller than the Pacific Gull. It scavenges fishing boats and rarely ventures far out to sea.
You can also find the Silver Gull in New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Silver Gulls can often manage to raise two broods of 3 chicks in one year! They nest on offshore islands. They are good at co-parenting, too, as both adults share the nest-making duties and feeding duties.
Their call sounds like a “kwee-ahhh!”
27. Armenian Gull (Larus armenicus)
The Armenian Gull nests in Turkey and Armenia. Their most well known breeding colony is at Tuz Golu in Turkey.
It has dark wingtips and a gray upper body. It’s small and cute with a round head and small bill – the sort of gull you would take back to meet your parents! It breeds on upland lakes, but can be found on inland wetlands and coasts in winter.
28. Belcher’s Gull (Larus belcheri)
Belcher’s Gull lives along the Humboldt Coast. You’ll find this gull sticks to coasts and shorelines. It doesn’t like to go inland.
It’s a dead ringer for the Kelp Gull, but smaller. It also has a white head and lacks the Kelp Gull’s white spots on the wingtip.
Its squeaky call sounds like a balloon with air coming out of it!
Immature and non-breeding gulls have a dark hood and yellowish legs.
29. Olrog’s Gull (Larus atlanticus)
The Olrog’s Gull is near threatened due to its restricted range. It’s a resident of the coastline of South america. It’s named after biologist Claes C. Olrog, who was Swedish-Argentinian.
It’s a picky eater, feeding almost exclusively on intertidal crabs. It uses four different foraging techniques to catch them.
Olrog’s Gull has only a handful of breeding colonies, so even though the population is stable, IUCN has given it a Near Threatened status.
It looks very similar to Belcher’s Gull. Until recently, it was thought they were the same species. When breeding it has a black back and wings and white head and underparts. There is a black band on the tail.
30. Heuglin’s Gull (Larus heuglini)
Heuglin’s Gull breeds in the Russian tundra. It’s also known as the Siberian Gull.
In the cold Siberian winter, they migrate to nice warm places like Southwest Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
Yet again, there’s arguments among taxonomists about whether Heuglin’s Gull is a subspecies of Lesser Black Backed Gull or a species in its own right. There’s even a separate subspecies of Heuglin’s Gull with lighter gray colors, that is thought to be the result of interbreeding with Vega Gulls.
They molt later than most of their relatives. They enjoy a meal of crustaceans, worms, and molluscs
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How Can I Tell Different Species of Seagulls Apart?
The million dollar question – how do bird researchers tell all these species of gull apart?
Here’s a few ways to tell one gull from another:
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Are Seagulls Clever?
Seagulls are actually pretty smart. Researchers have proved this with “the string pull test.” This is the same way corvid (crow and raven) intelligence was proven.
A piece of sausage was tied to a string and put inside a box. The only way the seagulls could get to it was to work out that they had to pull the string through a narrow slit to get their meal out of the box. 25% of the Ring-Billed Gulls worked it out, with 21% solving the puzzle on their first go.
Seagulls have good memories, too. They can remember when the best times are to go scavenging human food.
There is also news story of seagulls turning up at just the right times for school snack breaks! Researchers from the University of Bristol fitted trackers to 12 seagulls to prove this.
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Where do you find seagulls?
The most obvious place to look for seagulls is the coast and seashore, but seagulls are also found on inland waters like bogs, lakes and ponds. Some species spend all their time inland.
What do seagulls eat?
It’s probably easier to say what seagulls don’t eat!
Seagulls love human food such as chips, bread and meat. They are quite happy to chow down on a rotting carcass that most other birds would turn their beak up at.
How do seagulls catch food?
Seagulls can dive to shallow depths to catch food in the sea. However, they also hang out at fish markets (and takeaways) and follow fishing boats where they can get an easy free meal!
They also steal food from other birds, mobbing and snatching away a hard earned seafood meal. They know how to make pelicans spill their beakful of fish, too!
How long do seagulls live?
Seagulls are quite long-lived compared to other birds. It depends on the species though. The oldest seagull recorded was a 49 year old Herring Gull. On average, Herring Gulls can easily reach 20 years old. Even the smaller gulls can live at least 7 years. Seagulls have few natural predators.
Do seagulls migrate?
Many types of seagulls migrate to warmer places during the winter. Arctic dwelling species will overwinter in America and Europe or even further South. Seagulls are strong fliers and can cover vast distances over the sea.
That said, some gulls will just move further inland.
How can scientists recognise a particular seagull?
When studying migration and longevity, bird scientists (often called ornithologists) will often ring one of their legs. This small metal ring has a number.
When scientists catch the gull again they can find out where it has come from and how long ago it was ringed. Now, new computerized technology can tell each bird apart.
What’s the difference between a gull and a tern?
Gulls and terns are both in the same family known as Laridae. Terns have shorter legs and are daintier than gulls. They have a dark colored ‘cap’ rather than a full ‘hood’ of dark feathers on their heads. Terns have deeply forked tails. They are generally smaller than gulls.
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