It’s a gregarious species throughout the year, including the reproductive period, when it gathers in reproductive colonies. It’s observed in numerous flocks especially in winter, even in the countryside and near food sources such as urban waste dumps. The yellow-legged gull is a good flier, and uses its ability to prey on other species of birds, including their own kind, forcing them to give up their food: a behavior defined as “kleptoparasitism”. Although it doesn’t have the characteristics of a predator, it feeds on the eggs and nestlings of other birds and also manages to catch city pigeons. In this regard, it is not uncommon to spot it even in urban centers, where it can find food in abundance, in particular at waste deposits and landfills.
Everything you need to know about the yellow-legged gull:
The yellow-legged gull is a medium-large bird: it reaches a length of 55-65 centimeters, with a wingspan that can extend to 150 centimeters, weighing 1.25 kg. Both sexes have a basically the same appearance: heads and bodies are white, a light shade of grey on the back and on the wings with few clear spots on the black wings’ tips. As the name suggest, the legs and the beak are yellow, while a thin red circle can be observed around the eyes There is a thin red ring around the eye, while the beak and legs are yellow. Juveniles show a white base color, but thickly dotted with brown. Only from the fourth winter does the livery take on the definitive appearance of the adult.
For some time considered a separate species – previously it was considered conspecific of L. argentatus and L. cachinnans – the yellow-legged gull is present with the nominal subspecies L. m. michahellis in Italy, Portugal, Atlantic France, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The subspecies L. m. atlantis frequents the Azores, the island of Madeira and the Canaries, probably going as far as the coasts of Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula.
Since many decades, yellow-legged gulls have learned how to find food in the garbage bins of our cities and recycling stations. Although its main source of food is represented by fish, carcasses and sometimes even rats, among its prey there are also other birds, which they hunt in flight or directly in their nests. It nests on the ground on sandbanks, islets and also on artefacts, in particular on the roofs in the cities, where it finds large quantities of food and the absence of predators. It lays two or three eggs, brooded for about a month, while the chicks leave the nest about 40 days after hatching: peculiar to the species is the red spot present in the lower part of the beak, near the tip, which serves as a reference to the chicks to ask for food from adults during weaning.
- Scientific name: Larus michahellis.
- Weight: 800 – 1500 g.
- Length: 52 – 58 cm.
- Wingspan: 120 – 140 cm.
- Diet: Fish, insects, birds, carcasses, garbage and worms.
- Habitat: Agricultural and urban areas, lakes, waterways and wet areas.
- Threats: Disturbance caused by tourists, predation of the nests by mammals such as stray dogs, foxes and rats. The species is also exposed to contamination by heavy metals and chlorinated hydrocarbons, and there is a high mortality of individuals due to the ingestion of toxic substances. The destruction and transformation of reproductive habitats due to coastal urbanization is also threatening.
The color is white with grey back and upper part of the wing and black wing tip. The legs and beak are yellow, the latter features a red part under the terminal part. Yellow legs. The juveniles have a mottled brown livery which becomes progressively more grey until the adult livery is assumed in their third year.
The yellow-legged gull is a widespread species along the Atlantic coasts of France and the Iberian Peninsula, the Azores Islands, Madeira, the countries of the Mediterranean basin and the Black Sea. It’s characterized by both sedentary and migratory or erratic populations. It can be confused with the northern herring gull (Larus argentatus) with which it coexists in some reproductive areas and with the Caspian gull (Larus cachinnans).
Like all gulls, the Larus michahellis also has a very wide and varied diet: they feed on fish, mollusks, crustaceans, polychaete, echinoderms, human food waste, rats, worms or dead animals. They can be observed scratching waste from the bins. They are discreet predators and can catch smaller birds such as swifts, starlings, and pigeons in flight, they can also hunt eggs and chicks from other nests. This gull doesn’t dive, instead it hunts what floats on the water. Only on rare occasions does it dive to shallow depths. It often steals prey caught by other seabirds.
It’s essentially colonial species, it can sometimes nest in isolated pairs. The density of nests in colonies can reach values of 10 nests / 100m2. The area around the nest is defended by the other individuals, especially by the male ones. The time for deposition is from late March to early May. The nest is placed on a rock or on the ground, usually with little material and sometimes with the eggs laid on the bare ground. On riverbanks the nests are built by accumulating branches a few decimeters long and placed on the ground near the vegetation. 2-3 spotted eggs of variable color are laid. The incubation, performed by both parents, lasts 27-31 days. The young, precocious, become independent at about 40 days.
The species currently shows a good state of conservation, such as not to require particular protective measures. the population it’s increasing and is therefore considered a safe species throughout Europe. This increase can be explained by the greater availability of food resources from men, and the colonization of new environments – in particular the urban one – has allowed the species to reproduce in conditions with reduced predatory pressure, favoring its further expansion.
This progressive colonization of cities brings about considerable problems of “coexistence” with humans, especially when the species is present in urban areas with concentrations such as to cause disturbance in terms of noise, dirt and aggression towards other species. An excessive presence of the yellow-legged gull can have a strong impact on ecosystems and biodiversity, due to the disturbance and predation it exerts on other bird species and their nests.
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.