Seagulls - they’re one of the most widely known birds in the world. Despite being widely known as seagulls, seagulls are actually just gulls - seagulls is an informal term. Seagulls live and breed on every continent including Antarctica and the High Arctic, but do seagulls migrate?
Many species of gulls are strongly migratory and some travel thousands of miles each year, wintering in markedly warmer parts of the world than their summer breeding grounds. This does depend, though, as some species of gulls only migrate short distances or don’t migrate at all, often just flying short distances in-land from the coast in winter.
There are 54 species of gulls and each has different migratory behaviours. In general, though, gulls are strong migrants. One example is Franklin’s gull which migrates all the way from Canada as far south as Argentina!
Seagulls are actually very interesting and intelligent birds despite often being profiled as vermin or overly aggressive. Read on to discover more about the migratory patterns and movements of gulls!
A flock of gulls and terns in flight
Gulls distributed across northerly latitudes are more likely to migrate than others. The main motivator for migration is cold weather and food scarcity. So, gulls distributed in the Southern Hemisphere or closer to the equator are less likely to migrate.
Some examples of migratory gulls are Franklin’s gull, distributed in North America and Canada and the Black-backed gull, distributed across much of Northern Europe. Some examples of non-migratory gulls include the Belcher’s gull, distributed across much of South America and the Lava gull, the rarest gull in the world that lives exclusively in the Galapagos.
Other gulls, like the Caspian gull and European Herring gull may or may not migrate, with some choosing to remain residents in their host countries, or simply moving in-land in the winter instead of migrating their full range.
Herring Gulls generally tend to remain resident
Gulls that do migrate will do so in winter, when the summer breeding season comes to a close. This may be as early as late August or as late as November and December.
For example, the Black-backed gull spends much of summer in Central and Northern Europe before leaving for West Africa in August and September, though some may stop in much of North Africa, Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean.
It’s a similar story in North America and Canada where Franklin’s gull typically leave their breeding grounds in November and December, returning around March.
Seagulls migrate through much of the world, but most North American gulls tend to migrate to South America whereas most European gulls tend to migrate to Africa or the Middle East. Other more easterly gulls, such as Siberian gulls and Greater Black-Headed gulls migrate to India and much of South Asia.
Gulls distributed across northerly latitudes can travel some 6,000 miles to their winter grounds.
Where gulls do not migrate so far, they tend to move inland instead. In the UK and North America, many species of coastal gulls move inland in winter rather than migrating longer distances.
A group of Yellow-legged Gulls in their first winter plumage
Where seagulls move in-land in winter rather than fully migrating, they tend to roost near lakes, rivers, reservoirs, farm fields and refuse piles. Seagulls are becoming highly adapted to urban environments too, and are found to be nesting further inland than ever before.
When gulls migrate, they tend to go as far as they need to to find food and warmer roosting accommodation. For some northerly species of gulls, this might take them all the way to South America and West Africa. The migratory patterns of gulls are not fixed and many stop off on the way rather than travelling the full extent of their range.
Common Gull in flight
It might be a push to say that gulls migrate inland as they can come inland at any time of year and this doesn’t represent the same distance as true migratory gulls that can travel some 6,000 miles.
That said, gulls are known to travel inland during the winter, often looking for warmer and less windy roosts compared to their typical coastal habitats. Gulls are also known to head inland once they sense rough conditions or storms at sea.
Gulls that do migrate often travel in large numbers of possibly thousands of birds. Like many other migratory birds or long-distance travellers, gulls often form a “V” formation which helps them navigate and save energy.
In some migratory studies, individual gulls were found to wander extensively with some covering colossal distances of 7,500 miles. Different groups of gulls choose to stop in different locations rather than maintaining fixed winter roosts. For example, gulls travelling from Europe towards West Africa and South Asia often stop in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Central Asia instead.
Two large flocks of Laughing Gulls
Determining how birds migrate and how they know where they’re going and why has long been a fascination of ornithologists.
We now know that birds use a range of techniques to determine when to migrate and what direction to go, but for many birds, this begins with the secretion of hormones that urges the bird to migrate. There are environmental cues too, like dwindling food supply and of course, the drop in temperature.
The migratory behaviours of some gulls like the Black-Headed gull are very interesting as they’ve been found to use their sense of smell to work out precisely where they are (yes, birds do have a sense of smell!). They can literally smell where they are, prompting them to stop in their roosting spots in Western Africa before returning home to the same lakes from which they departed.
Black-headed gulls in winter plumage
Some species of gulls do migrate from the UK, such as the Black-Headed gull which moves through much of southern Europe and the Mediterranean to the Middle East and Africa. The Common gull may or may not migrate - some simply stay where they are or head in-land during the winter.
The Mediterranean gull which is found in the UK migrates to the Mediterranean in the winter, as the name suggests!
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.