Spot the black-headed gull: The smallest seagull in Iceland

The black-headed gull (formerly Larus ridibundus, now known as Chroicocephalus ridibundus) belongs to the gull family (Laridae) and the genus Chroicocephalus. Gulls in this genus are small to medium-sized most of them having a distinguished hood on the head. These species were previously placed in the Larus genus, which includes the real gulls. The black-headed gull is widely distributed and nests in Europe, Asia, and on the east coast of  Canada.

The black-headed gull is a delicate bird with a distinguished dark hood

The black-headed gull is delicate with a characteristic dark brown hood on its head when wearing summer plumage. The body is white with a grayish back but black wingtips. It has webbed feet, which are as the beak, red on adult birds. Fledglings are brownish above but lighter coloured below. They have pale feet and a brown beak. Juveniles have pink feet and a dark tip on the beak. The body is mostly white, but the wings are brownish. In winter plumage, the black-headed gull resembles a juvenile but has a dark spot behind the eye. The black-headed gull is 15-17 in long with a 37-41 in wingspan and weighs about 11 oz. The male is a little bigger than the female, which is common among Charadriiformes.

The black-headed gull is found all-around Iceland, but the population size is fluctuating.

The black-headed gull started breeding in Iceland around 1930 and dispersed quickly around the country. The population grew fast and was estimated 25000-30000 breeding pairs in 1990. The population size today is unknown, but it has fluctuated greatly from 1990 but is still considered big. The black-headed gull is found all-around Iceland and is often spotted near the seashore and in harbors but is also found in cultivated areas in the lowlands.

Where do they come from and where do they go?

Most Icelandic black-headed gulls are migratory and arrive to the country late March and leave towards Great Britain and western Europe when the days become shorter in September. Icelandic birds have also been observed in Southwest Greenland and Newfoundland. During winter, a few thousand black-headed gulls stay at the seashore in the south and southwest Iceland.

Nesting and rearing youngs

The black-headed gull most often nests in wetlands or close to lakes and the sea. Still, there can be found colonies in the lowland on dry sands or moors. They often nest in sparse colonies that can count over 1000 breeding pairs. The nest is a pile of dry vegetation and feathers where the bird lays 2-3 eggs. The incubation time is 23-26 days. The eggs are olive green with dark spots and weigh about 1.4 oz each. Both parents care for the young until it can fly. They bring food and keep it warm during the cold Arctic nights. The black-headed gull is very territorial and defends its nesting area aggressively toward intruders. Other birds seek its protection, and therefore, many bird species can be found nesting in black-headed gull colonies.

The menu of the black-headed gull is very diverse!

Like other gulls the black-headed gull is an opportunistic feeder and is a well known „citybird“ that feeds on all kinds of scrap. On the beach, it feeds mostly on invertebrates, small fish, and fish waste. In the lowlands on cultivated fields, it feeds on insects, worms, and seeds. The black-headed gull has been spotted stealing eggs and youngs of many small bird species and eating berries in the fall.

  1. The black-headed gull is the smallest gull in Iceland.
  2. The Latin name of the black-headed gull means „the laughing gull“ as his sounds resemble laughter.
  3. The oldest known black-headed gull was 33 years old.
  4. A young black-headed gull becomes mature and gets its hood two years old.
  5. The black-headed gull was sometimes called „the newspaper tern“ in Iceland as a picture of it was published in the newspaper with the headline that the tern had finally arrived. Both these species have a characteristic dark hood, which can confuse amateur bird watchers.

Links in the hood:

Learn more about Icelandic birds in our article section
See more in the Handbook of the Birds of the World
Learn more on the Natural History of Iceland Site
Explore more on Wildlife Journal, Junior 

Author: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson
Photographer: Dr. Þórður Örn Kristjánsson

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