A familiar bird of the coast, the bold and long-lived Herring Gull is a fascinating seabird in decline.
European Herring Gull
A pair of Herring Gulls during courtship
Close up of a Herring Gull in flight, from below
Herring Gulls are a loud gull species
European herring gull
Family:Gulls and terns
54cm to 60cm
130cm to 150cm
690g to 1.44kg
The Herring gull is a large seabird with a white head and underparts in the breeding season. The upper wings are pale grey with black tips, and their legs are pinkish. The species has a heavy, yellow bill with a red spot on the lower mandible and yellow eyes.
Female Herring Gulls have identical plumage to males, which poses a challenge for identification. However, males are significantly larger on average, and the difference may be visible when pairs are seen together. Non-breeding birds have grey-brown streaks on the head and neck.
Herring Gull Summer Plumage (Breeding)
Herring Gull Winter Plumage (non breeding) - notice the light brown mottling
Juvenile Herring Gulls are distinct from mature birds, taking four years to attain their adult plumage. The young birds have brown streaking and blotching over the entire body but are darkest on the back and wings. They also have black bills and eyes until about their third winter.
Juvenile Herring Gulls are difficult to distinguish from other juvenile gull species, although adults are easily identified by their wing, back, and leg colours.
Juvenile Herring Gull
Herring Gulls are large gulls, second only to the magnificent Great Black-backed Gull.
Adult Herring Gulls have a total body length of 54 to 60 centimetres.
Their weight varies from 690 grams to over 1.4 kilograms, with males as the heavier sex.
Herring Gulls have an impressive wingspan of 1.3 to 1.5 meters.
European Herring Gull in flight, displaying its large wingspan
The Herring Gull’s call is a quintessential seaside sound in the United Kingdom.
Herring Gulls make various sounds at different stages of their lives and times of the year, including a variety of shorter calls to communicate with their partners and chicks or when alarmed or threatened.
The Herring Gull’s most complex vocalisation is known as the ‘long call’ and may consist of over 25 notes. The first few notes are produced with a lowered neck and are softer. The rest are uttered with a raised head and are faster and louder.
Herring Gulls utter their characteristic screaming ‘long call’ when approached by other gulls near their nest or when feeding. This call serves an aggressive territorial function.
Herring Gull calling loudly
The Herring gull has an incredibly varied diet. They have learned to capitalise on human food and are now at home around towns and cities.
Herring Gulls eat whatever food is available. They are omnivorous and adept at finding a meal in many environments.
Herring Gulls will hunt fish and invertebrates for themselves, steal food from other birds, or scavenge for carrion. They also eat a variety of plant material, including seeds, fruit and roots.
Discarded food and scraps around towns and landfills are important food sources in many areas.
Young Herring Gulls rely on their parents for up to three months before they become independent. Both males and females provide food, which is regurgitated directly into the bills of young chicks but deposited on the floor as they grow stronger.
Older chicks (10 days +) are fed entire food items like small fish, shellfish, and scraps.
Herring Gull catching a fish from the water
Herring Gulls are most common along the coast, although they are adaptable birds that frequent larger freshwater bodies, fields and rubbish dumps inland.
Herring Gulls occur around the entire UK coastline and venture far inland in some areas. The species has a vast geographic range, although the European subspecies is limited to Iceland, the British Isles, and adjacent Western Europe from Germany to the Iberian Peninsula.
Most Herring Gulls live along the coast, where they forage on the shore, in coastal towns, and in other suitable feeding grounds. They are comfortable out at sea and will feed many kilometres offshore. They also venture far inland, especially in the winter.
Herring Gulls scavenging for food on the beach at Folkestone in Kent, England
Herring Gulls are among the most common gulls in the United Kingdom, second only to the Black-headed Gull.
Herring Gulls can be seen practically anywhere along the UK coastline. Look out for them inland at rubbish dumps and flooded fields.
Young Herring Gull swimming on the sea - they take four years to reach their adult plumage
Herring Gulls are generally long-lived, which is vital for a species that first breeds at the age of four. Their average lifespan is approximately 12 years, but they have been known to live up to 49 years, which is impressive for any bird.
Herring gull eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation by Foxes, dogs, cats, and Great Black-backed Gulls. Adults occasionally fall prey to Peregrine Falcons and grey seals.
Herring Gulls are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Despite their numbers, Herring Gulls are a red-listed species in the United Kingdom due to a precipitous 50% decline in the second half of the 20th century.
Herring Gull, pictured from behind at the cliffs
Herring Gulls nest on the ground in inaccessible areas, safe from foxes and other hungry carnivores. They prefer sites that are sheltered from the wind but provide a good lookout for threats and predators.
Typical sites include cliffs, islands, and sand dunes. These adaptable birds have learned that our rooftops provide similar protection, and many now nest on buildings in the United Kingdom.
Herring Gulls produce a single brood each year. They typically lay their eggs toward the end of spring in May. The eggs hatch after about 29 days, and the chicks leave the nest soon thereafter.
They will remain within the nesting territory until their first flight about 50 days later.
Herring Gulls lay two or three speckled olive eggs that camouflage well against natural surroundings. The eggs are large, measuring approximately 70 millimetres long and 49 millimetres wide.
Herring Gulls are a monogamous species, and successful pairs will mate for life.
The nest of a Herring Gull, with three eggs inside
Adult Herring Gull with two young fluffy chicks
Herring Gulls are highly aggressive towards other birds that approach their nest. They will also attack and even kill other chicks that wander too close. They can be surprisingly bold around humans, particularly when defending their nest or looking for a free meal.
Herring Gulls take short naps during the day but may sleep for several hours each night. They sleep on rocky shores and beaches for most of the year but spend the night near the nest during the breeding season.
Herring Gulls can be very bold, even around humans
The breeding population of Herring Gulls is mainly sedentary in the United Kingdom. However, their numbers swell in the winter when birds from Northern Europe arrive for the non-breeding season.
Herring Gulls are a native species in the UK, although they have recently expanded their range inland in response to dwindling natural food supplies and the allure of scraps around towns and cities.
Close up of a Herring Gull
Herring Gulls and many other gull species are often known as seagulls simply due to their association with the coast. This old name is only partially accurate for describing Herring Gulls due to their habit of wintering inland.
Herring Gulls are not classed as vermin. Their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent times, and they are deservedly protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act. As such, harming them or interfering with their nests, eggs, or chicks is an offence.
Herring Gulls do not kill live adult Puffins, although they may feed on dead or dying individuals. The gulls will, however, steal puffin eggs or eat young chicks that leave their nest burrows.
Feeding Herring Gulls is bad for birds and bad for people. This practice encourages begging and food stealing, and rarely provides the balanced diet they require.
Named in honour of the French naturalist and ornithologist, Jean Victor Audouin (1797 – 1841) the Audouin’s gull is one of the world’s rarest and is limited in the main to regions within and surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Until fairly recently yellow-legged gulls were considered a subspecies of the caspian gull or the herring gull. In 2007, the British Ornithologists’ Union first listed it as a distinct species with key differences in appearance and distribution range from similar-looking gulls.
Sandwich terns are migratory seabirds that breed at large nesting colonies along the warm-water coasts of Europe, parts of the south-eastern United States, the Caribbean and as far south as Patagonia in South America. Their distinctive yellow-tipped bill and shaggy black crest make them relatively unmistakable alongside similar seabird species.
Roseate terns have a wide distribution range, and are found on six continents around the world. However, numbers have declined dramatically in some regions, leading to conservation concerns over the long-term survival of the species.
Despite its name, the Mediterranean gull is not limited to coastal waters of southern Europe, and is widespread on the Atlantic and Black Sea coasts, as well as in coastal regions and inland reservoirs of England and Wales.
A tiny, but feisty, seabird, the little tern undertakes epic annual migrations of up to 10,000 km (6,000 miles) between breeding grounds along the UK coast to winter territories in West Africa. Further east, little tern populations complete similar journeys from China and Japan to Australia each year.
Little gulls are small, tern-sized seabirds that breed mainly in Central Asia, but are occasionally reported as vagrant breeders in North America and may be seen in passage around coastal areas of the UK, and rarely reach the United States and Canada.
Lesser Black-Backed Gull
The Lesser Black-backed Gull is one of many attractive ‘white-headed-gulls’ from the Larus genus. Common in the UK throughout the year, these migratory seabirds also visit the eastern half of the United States each winter.
The Kittiwake is an attractive, short-legged gull that breeds on rocky cliffs along the UK’s coastline. These birds disperse each winter to forage out over the open ocean.
Iceland Gulls breed exclusively along the rocky coastlines of north-east Canada to Greenland. Winter migration south occurs, with temporary visitors arriving along both Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States, and to coastal areas across north-western Europe.
Great Black-Backed Gull
The Great Black-backed Gull is the world’s largest gull and one formidable seabird. This impressive species lives and breeds along Northern Hemisphere shores on both sides of the Atlantic.
A large, pale gull species, the Glaucous gull breeds across the Arctic, where it hunts for fish, birds and small mammals and scavenges for carrion. Known for their intolerance of sharing a food source with other birds, Glaucous gulls can be physically aggressive as well as highly vocal when approached.
Terns are water birds from the family Sternidae and are expert fish catchers. There are generally considered to be forty five separate species of terns worldwide. Generally smaller than gulls but with long tails, thin bodies and short legs, they are long distance migrants.
There are four sub-species of the common gull with the European variant being the nominate. The other three are the Russian, Kamchatka and American, which are all predominantly confined to the geographical region attributed by their name. There are subtle differences in plumage and overall size of bird between sub-species.
The title of Black-headed Gull is rather a misnomer for this bird as its head is not black but a dark brown colour and only in adult birds during the breeding season. It is not present during the winter months or in other plumages. Unlike many gulls it is not restricted to coastal regions and is widespread inland in both rural and urban areas.
The Black Tern is a small, graceful seabird that nests far from the ocean. These birds switch between radically different habitats in the breeding and non-breeding seasons, but habitat loss inland has caused their numbers to plummet since the mid-1900s.
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