The Black-headed Gull is a familiar enough sight across most of Britain and Ireland, particularly during the winter months when the only significant gaps in its distribution are within the upland regions of Wales and Scotland. The relative abundance map from Bird Atlas 2007-11 provides a more fine-scale picture of the winter distribution; the highest densities are to be encountered around the Thames Estuary, coastal East Anglia and the urbanised centres of northern England, Central Scotland and south Wales.
While the breeding distribution reflects the broader pattern evident in winter, there are some clear differences, largely reflecting breeding season habitat requirements. Black-headed Gulls nest across a wide range of wetlands, both coastal and inland, making use of man-made as well as natural waterbodies, from flooded gravel pits to the margins of upland boggy pools. The species is a colonial breeder, sometimes nesting alongside Common Gulls or terns, but on occasion solitary nesting pairs may be encountered. The nest itself uses dry grasses and other vegetation, the amount of vegetation used ranging from very little on dry sites to a substantial pile on wet sites, underlining attempts to protect the nest contents from changing water levels.
Our Black-headed Gull populations have seen a remarkable change in fortunes over the last 200 years. During the early 19th Century the species was a rare breeder but a dramatic population increase through the 20th Century saw the breeding population rise to well in excess of 100,000 breeding pairs. This period of improving fortunes also saw increased use of inland areas for breeding, with sizeable colonies – some in excess of 10,00 pairs – becoming established at favoured sites.
Bird Atlas 2007-11 data reveal the loss of breeding sites in the north and west of the UK since the 1968-72 Breeding Atlas but with gains in the south of England over the same period, a pattern seen in a number of other colonial waterbird species. It is not clear what is behind these changes, but changes in habitat quality and levels of predation may be involved. The species has been amber listed because of the recent decline in the size of the non-breeding population and the importance of Britain and Ireland during the winter months.
During the winter months our largely resident breeding population is joined by large numbers of Black-headed Gulls arriving from breeding areas elsewhere in Europe. Birds from the Low Countries, the Baltic States and Russia are all known to visit, as revealed by ring-recoveries. It has been estimated that as many as two-thirds of the birds wintering here may originate from overseas. The early arrivals are probably birds from The Netherlands, while those from furthest east probably only reach us later in the season when cold weather elsewhere acts to push them west.
From dinner table to bird table
Up until the 1940s, commercial exploitation of Black-headed Gull breeding colonies saw the collection of eggs and the taking of birds for meat. This was a large industry, as can be seen by the trade of nearly 300,000 eggs per year at Leadenhall Market in London during the 1930s. Since the trade ceased we have seen Black-headed Gulls increasingly associated with a different kind of table – the bird table. As BTO Garden BirdWatch results reveal, Black-headed Gulls will turn to garden feeding stations during the winter months to exploit kitchen scraps and other foods. Black-headed Gulls are opportunistic feeders, taking invertebrates such as earthworms, plant materials, bread, cheese and potatoes, among other things.
Of course, the ubiquitous Black-headed Gull isn’t the only gull to show a dark head during the breeding season and it is worth brushing up on your identification skills so you can pick out a Little Gull or Mediterranean Gull from the crowd. View our Bird ID video on Small Black-headed Gulls to help.