In the cold season, the black-headed seagulls are regular guests on our waterfronts and are able to cheer up more than a grey winter day: how can we imagine our beaches and lakefronts without their acrobatic flights, fast as lightning, with which they manage to catch the bread that was actually meant for the ducks? In urban areas this opportunistic bird finds a rich, constant supply of food and its scientific name comes from its sneering, laughing call.
Everything you need to know about the black-headed gull:
The black-headed gull is an astute hunter, capable of adapting to environments that are not just the marine one: in fact, it’s not uncommon, to spot it in the fields or looking for small invertebrates among the plowed clods. It’s a gregarious species year-round, easily observable even in urban centers. More often than not it moves in big groups, even composed of hundreds and hundreds of birds, near municipal solid waste dumps and on agricultural land, for the most part on days of abundant rain or tailing tractors plowing the fields.
It’s also very common to observe the flocks in flight arranged in an obvious “V” shape moving in the morning, in the direction of the feeding spots and, later in the day, on their way back to the colonies. It’s definitely a bird that can feed on anything it finds around and, quite often, it can be seen stealing food from other birds, including fellow gulls!
- Scientific name: Chroicocephalus ridibundus.
- Weight: 225 – 350 g.
- Wingspan: 83 – 101 cm.
- Age: Up to 32 years.
- Diet: Insects, fish, earthworms, fruits, leftovers and waste from humans.
- Habitat: Lakes, beaches, streams, wetlands, agricultural areas as well as urban areas.
- Threats: It is affected—especially in the breeding period—by variations in the quantity and level of water. Being a colonial species, it is also potentially sensitive to the disturbance caused to the reproductive sites.
The black-headed gull has a length of about 33-39 cm and a wingspan that can reach up to 1 m. The male and the female show an almost identical livery, with mainly white, grey and black coloring. In the summer dress, the head is covered by a dark brown hood (not black, even if can look black from far, hence the name) and a white ring that can be seen around the eye.
Outside the summer season, the brown hood disappears, leaving behind only a tiny spot right behind the eye and a light shade on the head, barely visible as well. Its legs and beak are colored in a darker shade of red, while the wings and the back are grey, black and white, featuring the characteristic design on the terminal part. The younger individuals have a mottled brown color and, will gradually take on the livery of the adults after about 2 years of life.
The black-headed gull is a species that nests in the mid-latitudes of the entire Eurasian Region, from the Iberian Peninsula and Iceland to Scandinavia and all the way east to the Asian Pacific coasts of Eastern China and Japan. However they’re quite uncommon in Italy, Greece and Spain.
The populations of north-eastern Europe are migratory and spend their winter mainly along the Atlantic coasts from the North Sea to north-western Africa and the Mediterranean, but also inland along the rivers and lakes; the populations of the south-western regions are only partially migratory or perform more dispersive movements. It sometimes visits the coasts of the North American Continent and can be observed on some of the Caribbean Island too.
The black-headed gull feeds on insects, worms, aquatic invertebrates and fish, which it catches on the surface of the water or by dipping its head; in some cases it steals the prey of other birds or rummages through the garbage. Very confident in man and not scared at all, it often accepts food from his hands. It also feeds on, crustaceans, annelids, mollusks, larvae, myriapods, amphibians, reptiles, nestlings and small birds, small mammals (voles, mice), grains, various seeds, tubers, herbs and algae.
Like all seagull species, in winter it leads quite a social life, both when taking care of the chicks and during the breeding season. The black-headed gull usually reproduces in colonies, where it nests twice a year, producing about 2-3 eggs, which it hatches for a period of about twenty days. Once hatched, the chicks are grey in color, dotted with dark spots. Once the breeding season finishes, both the young and adult black-headed gull will gather in flocks.
The breeding season runs between April and July and the colonies usually choose coastal sea areas, swamps or lake shores. Before mating there’s a ritual in which the competitors will face each other with their beak pointing at one another, head down and wings slightly open and pointing downwards. Both partner will take care of preparing the nest using vegetable material readily available, and the place usually chosen for this is a depression in the ground.
Classified as safe throughout the European Union, the species has a favorable conservation status even at a continental level. Overall, there was a large increase in the breeding population in the territories of the European Community in the decades 1970-1990, followed then by a moderate decline in the following decade 1990-2000.
The species is relatively well monitored in terms of consistency, distribution and demographic trend. On the other hand, knowledge on reproductive biology is more limited and the values relating to the main demographic parameters are practically unknown.
The considerable fluctuations registered and the relative instability of the colonies also suggest extreme caution in evaluating the actual conservation status of the species. From this point of view, the need to favor the persistence of suitable conditions for reproduction in the environments frequented by the species and, in particular, in the sites hosting the main colonies, is paramount.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.