The adult black-headed gull is most recognisable in its summer plumage, when the dark chocolate-coloured hood (which looks black when seen from a distance) is visible. This dark hood is what gives the species its common English name. At this time, the adults also have a distinctive dull red bill and legs. Most of the upper wings and back are pale grey, with the rest of the plumage being white. Compared to other gulls, the black-headed gull is smaller in size, with a smaller head, longer neck and shorter tail. When on water, the species has a slender and more elegant profile. In winter, the distinctive ‘black’ hood becomes white, leaving just dark spots behind each eye.
The black-headed gull is a bold and opportunistic feeder and forages in a wide range of habitats. They are common on beaches, estuarine mud-flats and inland site such as playing fields, urban parks and freshly ploughed fields. The black-headed gull feeds on varied food items including aquatic and terrestrial insects, earthworms, marine invertebrates, some fish, grains and berries. They feed by taking items from the surface of the water when swimming or by dipping its head just under the surface. Black-headed gulls also walk along the coast and mudflats to probe for aquatic invertebrates. They frequently follow fishing boats for offal and have been known to steal food from over birds.
The species is very gregarious, often breeding in dense colonies which can be very noisy. The usual call is a screaming or rasping “karr” or “kreeay”, both high-pitched. A sharp “kek-kek” can be heard when the bird is feeding. The black-headed gull is very territorial and uses the black hood as an aggressive feature during disputes. In flight, the black-headed gull is quicker and more agile than larger gulls.
- Length: 35-39cm
- Wingspan: 90-110cm
- Weight: 190-400g
- Average Lifespan: 11-13 years (can live up to 30 years)
Classified in the UK as an Amber List species under the Birds of Conservation Concern 4 (2015 update). Protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Common and widespread
When to see
All year round
- The species-specific part of the black-headed gull’s scientific name (Chroicocephalus ‘ridibundus’) means ‘laughing ‘ and comes from its ‘ke-ke-ke’ and ‘kverarrr’ calls. It is referred to as the ‘laughing’ gull in other languages, such as German.
- This species of gull takes two years to reach maturity, acquiring adult plumage in its second winter. The juvenile can look like a strange wader, with strikingly different plumage to that of the adult. It has ginger-brown upper-parts and head markings, brown wing markings, black tail band and yellowish legs and a bill with a dark tip. Many acquire a partial hood in the first summer.