They may be common across Britain, but concerns are being raised about the future of the Black-headed Gull…
Kate Risely highlights concerns over the Blackheaded Gull’s future
COMMON AND WIDESPREAD, Black-headed Gulls are a familiar sight in towns and farmland as well as by the sea. Their raucous cackling calls earned them their Latin name ridibundus – ‘laughing’ – and in other European languages their common name translates as Laughing Gull. However, they are not called Laughing Gulls in English, as this is the name of a closely-related American species. A direct translation of the English name into Latin would be melanocephalus – ‘black head’ – but this is also already in use, for the bird known in English as Mediterranean Gull, but in German and French, confusingly, as ‘Black-headed Gull’! Mediterranean Gulls may in fact have the better claim to the name, since their heads are truly black, unlike Blackheaded Gulls, which have dark brown heads. In winter, both species have white heads, with the black reduced to a dark smudge behind the eye. Those who do not move in gourmet circles may not know that the eggs of wild Black-headed Gulls can be legally eaten, though only under tightlycontrolled restrictions. Only a handful of people are issued with licenses to collect eggs, at a small number of sites, for a few weeks a year. Each egg sells for between £4 and £10, and they are considered a rare and delicious culinary delicacy. For hundreds of years Black-headed Gull colonies were a major source of eggs and young birds for the table, a sustained exploitation that may have caused the population decline that led to near extinction here in the 19th Century. Since then, however, the egg harvest has been much reduced, and the breeding population, previously restricted to coastal areas, has recovered and spread to inland sites. There are now thought to be about 140,000 UK breeding pairs. They were once mainly found in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and upland areas of England, but the Bird Atlas 2007–11 shows they now breed in many more sites across lowland England, probably exploiting wetland habitats created through mineral extraction. At the same time, colonies have been lost in northern areas and in Ireland, possibly due to loss of safe nesting sites, drainage, food depletion and increased predation by American Mink. Overall these changes have meant a 22% reduction in occupied breeding sites across Britain and Ireland over the last 40 years. In winter, we are joined by birds from across northern and eastern Europe, swelling the population to more than two million individuals. At this time of year, Black-headed Gulls are found across much of Britain and Ireland, apart from the Scottish and Welsh uplands. Many of these birds will have been ringed as chicks in their home breeding colonies, and with the investment of a little time and some food scraps, it’s possible to read or photograph rings from countries such as Denmark, Finland, Norway, Germany, Poland and Lithuania among even a small town-centre flock. Winter gull monitoring has shown that numbers increased from the 1950s to the 1980s, partly due to the increase in waste food available, particularly at refuse tips. However, numbers of wintering birds have declined since the 1990s, perhaps due to the reduction of food available in farmland in winter, or maybe just reflecting the widespread decline in the European breeding population. Though still very common, Black-headed Gulls are now on the Amber list of conservation concern, due to breeding and wintering population declines.
Kate Risely is the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch Organiser
Those who do not move in gourmet circles may not know that the eggs of wild Black-headed Gulls can be legally eaten, though under controlled restrictions
ÉDECLINE The number of wintering Black-headed Gulls has fallen since the 1990s