Common Gull

Despite its name, the Common Gull is not at all that common and is difficult to find in most inland areas. It is more abundant in breeding areas on the coast and on wetland. In winter, they are beginning to migrate inland to housing estates, sports fields and landfill sites like other gulls.

The Common Gull is smaller though has a similar in appearance to the larger, Herring Gull, but lacks the red spot on its bill and looks more gentle despite its dark eyes. The upper wings are grey with a large white spot on the black wing tip which is how to identify them in flight. There is no white on the wing’s leading edge, but there is a wide white trailing edge. The head and underparts are white, and their legs are yellow green. The call is higher pitched than other gulls, a mewing “keel-you”. One of its names is the mew gull.

The Common Gull feeds on aquatic Insects, worms, small mammals, carrion, eggs, small fish, crabs, and, like other gulls, is partial to a bit of landfill especially in winter.

It breeds on coastal marshes, sand dunes, rocky ledges, shingle beaches, and sometimes on buildings. Most nest on the coast among colonies of other gulls or terns, though a few small groups nest on northern moorland. There is a large movement in March to the northern breeding grounds. The nest is built on the ground by both birds and is made of vegetation or seaweed. The 2-5 eggs are laid in May and hatch after 23 days. The youngsters leave the nest within 5 days and stay in the vicinity, being fed by mum and dad, until they can fly 25 days later when they become bolshy teenagers and soon want their independence. 

There are 50,000 breeding pairs in Britain, though the number swells to 700,000 in winter as gulls arrive here from their summer nesting grounds in Scandinavia. The number of Common Gulls in Britain has recently declined, and this is thought to be due to the draining of marshes. 

Their Latin name is ’larus canus’ where ’larus’ means ‘gull’. There is a bit of dispute whether ’canus’ refers to ‘dog’, as its short call can sound like a small dog, or ‘grey’ because of its colour. Absentminded scientists named it and then can’t remember why.

Herring Gull

A familiar gull round our coasts whose laughing cry “kyow, kyow, kyow” is everybody’s sound of the seaside. It is seldom seen far out at sea, preferring to steal your chips on the beach instead. The combination of the Clean Air act (forbidding the burning of rubbish) and dwindling fish stocks have brought many Herring Gulls inland and they can be found on rubbish tips, farmland and parks, though they are still more concentrated at the seaside as this is where all the chip eating tourists are.

They have a pearl grey back and upper wings, light underparts, a fierce-looking eye with a yellow iris, a heavy yellow bill with a red dot (ideal for getting into bin bags), and pink legs. The wings have white spots on their black tips. The colour of a gull’s legs is one of the things that helps to tell different types of gulls apart, which is annoying since you can’t see them most of the time! The Herring Gull’s feet are so tough that they have no problem standing on the perching spikes designed to keep them off buildings.

Herring Gulls eat just about anything; carrion, discarded fish from fishing boats, small mammals, eggs, shellfish, human rubbish (especially if it is a bit rotten), and chips. With the help of street lights, the Herring Gull is happy foraging all night, ripping into black bags for tasty morsels. They are believed to have extremely keen daytime and nighttime vision, superior to ours, and can see ultraviolet light. All this is great for bin raiding. They also have excellent hearing and a sense of taste that is particularly responsive to salt and acidity, which is why they go mad for chips with salt and vinegar. All these eating habits can make them a bit of a nuisance.

Herring Gull flocks have a loose pecking order, based on size, aggressiveness, and physical strength. The males are usually dominant over the females and youngsters in feeding and boundary disputes, while the females are dominant when selecting their nesting sites. They rule the house like ladies everywhere else. Traditionally, Herring Gulls nested in noisy cliff colonies but are increasingly nesting on roofs in towns and cities and, with that hard stare, showing little fear of humans. Nesting starts in April on a nest that is a mound of vegetation built by both adults. They lay 2-4 eggs (though usually 3) which hatch after 28 days. The young leave nest after 3 days and waddle about admiring their city view. The youngsters peck at the red spot on mum and dad’s beak to make them regurgitate food. Being mottled brown, the young birds are well camouflaged from predators. They can fly at about 35 days and quickly become independent chip thieves. The young gulls take 4 years to get their full adult plumage which may seem a long time, but the oldest know Herring Gull lived to be 31 years old.

There are about 140,000 pairs breeding in Britain rising to 740,000 in winter when large numbers of Scandinavian birds come over for a bit of battered cod having had enough of pickled herring. When the numbers are taken as a whole, the Herring Gull is declining across the country, despite their increase in urban areas. They are now protected by law and you have to get a special licence to remove them if they colonise your roof and cover it in poo.

Their Latin name is ’larus argentatus’ where ’larus’ means ’gull’ or ‘large seabird’ and ’argentatus’ means ‘decorated with silver’ as their backs are silver grey.  

Black-headed Gull

Surprisingly, given all the raucous noise it makes, the Black-headed Gull is the smallest of our common gulls and is more at home in a town park than at the seaside. They are the Essex boys of the gull world, always squabbling amongst themselves. If they could wear bling and a tracksuit, they would.

Black-headed is not a brilliant description of this gull as it has a white head for half of the year (with a blotchy smudge behind the eye) and a dark brown one for the rest - it just looks black from a distance. Their body is white with a pearl grey back. The bill and legs are bright red. There is an obvious white stripe along the front edge of their wings which helps to identify them when flying. The wings have black tips and look dark underneath. Their call is a very distinctive, loud, harsh, grating "tree-arrrgh" as if they are hoarse from shouting at each other so much.

These Essex boys will eat almost anything including fish, crabs, worms, seeds, rubbish tip waste, and insects. They will even mob other birds for food - like playground bullies. In fact, they even like to visit school playgrounds in winter for scraps, so keep tight hold of your Dairylea Dunkers.

Breeding starts in April with the male selecting a site and building a rough nest from a pile of vegetation on the ground. Finding a spot can be tricky as Black-headed Gull colonies can vary in size from a few birds to many thousands! The female joins in to complete the nest. Both birds sit on the 2-3 eggs, which hatch after 23 days. Both parents feed the young which leave the nest after 10 days and can fly 15 days later. One particular behaviour of the Black-headed Gull is that they remove the eggshells from the nest once the chicks have hatched. The youngsters are fed by the parents regurgitating food onto the ground, rather than into each chick's mouth, and the chicks take it in turns to munch through the mess. Once they have left the nest, the young birds take two years to reach full maturity - and learn enough swear words to impress the girls.

The breeding population in Britain is about 200,000 pairs but swells up to over 2 million individuals in winter as the Northern European birds come over for a squabble. Most of the British birds are locally resident though may move about in winter to find food. Black-headed Gulls can be found on farmland, towns, beaches, roofs, car parks, playing fields, rubbish tips - just about everywhere. They can be found over much of Europe, except Spain, Italy and Greece where they were banned for loutish behaviour. The oldest known Black-headed Gull lived to be 32 years old.

Their Latin name is 'chroicocephalus ridibundus' where 'chroicocephalus' is from the Ancient Greek 'khroizo' meaning 'to colour' and 'kephale' for 'head'. The 'ridibundus' is Latin for 'laughing'.