Species Up­date

They may be com­mon across Bri­tain, but con­cerns are be­ing raised about the fu­ture of the Black-headed Gull…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - KATE RISELY’S

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

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