Friends volunteer, popular guide and bird expert Trevor Gunton introduces the next in this series of informative articles.
Black-headed gull image by William, CC BY 2.0
Why do birdwatchers not take too much notice of gulls? This bird is one of our most familiar local birds, but is very little known to most people, being called a “seagull” by most of my friends? So, if the herring gull (a declining species) is the spirit of many seaside holidays long past, then the black-headed gull is the “town gull” in many parts of Britain. But it was not always so.
Seemingly easy feeding off manmade waste brought gulls up the Thames into London during spells of hard winter weather in the mid-1880s. But we can go back even further to 1656, when we have records of black-headed gull eggs being collected for food, along with those of lapwings, in many areas of northern England. In parts of Scotland, especially Shetland, these gulls provided a ready source of food during the breeding season.
Delving further into my library, I have found out that in Haines’ “The Birds of Rutland” (1907), our bird in question was listed as the Brown Headed Gull, which seems a more appropriate name to me.
I have traced more than 60 historical or regional names for the black-headed gull, including hooded gull, carr swallow, laughing gull, pigeon gull, white crow and sprat owl, with brown headed gull being the most numerous. No wonder there’s so much confusion about early bird records in Britain!
If you feed birds in your garden, you will know that the black-headed gull will eat just about anything you offer. In the wild, they will eat insects, beetles, flies, moths, sand eels, snails, slugs – also recorded are dead moles, voles, shrews, and of course a very wide range of grains, seeds and vegetable products. You name it, they will eat it!
This is a very successful, adaptable species, being found mainly as a resident across the UK and Ireland, and also in Shetland, the Faroes, southern Scandinavia, European Russia and south to the Mediterranean, with some birds spending the winter on the north African coast. There is a winter influx of continental birds to the UK, which may be in the order of 3 million birds.
These gulls are just about all ground nesting, traditionally nesting on upland moorland tarns and coastal flooded lagoons, but in recent years there seems to have been a marked change in breeding locations to manmade water features such as gravel pits.
However, in Tebbutt’s “The Birds of Huntingdonshire” (1967), he listed the black-headed gull as a common winter visitor, passage migrant and a rare breeder – citing just two breeding records for the old county of Huntingdonshire. Further back still, in 1912, the St Neots Advertiser thought it newsworthy to record that 50 or 60 “seagulls” on St Neots Common had come in for considerable local attention! Clearly our black-headed gull!
Breeding numbers on gravel pits fluctuate over the years and about 10 years ago, we hosted about 300-400 pairs on the Sailing Lake and c200 pairs on the northern Pump House Pit. However, they have been less successful in recent years, and as far as we could establish, no young were raised last year (2020). Otter or mink were suspected.
Take a little trouble to look again at gulls. I think that the black-headed gull in breeding plumage is a very attractive bird with its dark brown head, red bill and red feet, along with sharp wings with a white leading edge. Will they breed on the Sailing Lake this year? By the time you read this, maybe we shall know the answer!
The Black-headed Gull Fact File
- Latin name: Larus ridibundus
- UK population
- 1938: 35,000 breeding pairs
- 1976: 100,000 breeding pairs
- 2019: 140,000 breeding pairs
- Winter population may exceed 3 million birds (from continental Europe)
- Status: Resident and winter visitor
- Where to see: Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, Grafham Water (hosts a huge winter roost), St Neots Riverside Park