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Black-legged Kittiwake - BirdForum Opus

Revision as of 22:44, 19 January 2023 by Deliatodd-18346 (talk | contribs) (→‎External Links)
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R. t. tridactyla adults
Photo © by JJM
Handa Island, Highlands, Scotland, UK, 11 June 2003
Rissa tridactyla


Length 38–40 cm (15-16"), wingspan 91–120 cm (36-47"), weight 300–530 g
A medium-sized, usually highly oceanic gull of the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Adult R. t. tridactyla in flight
Photo © by rentoncharman
Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire, England, 4 May 2008

Summer Adult

  • White, with silver-grey mantle and wings
  • Wing tips black ("dipped in ink look")
  • Bill yellow with a slight greenish tinge; gape bright red
  • Legs dark grey to blackish
  • Eye dark brown to black, with a narrow red orbital ring

Winter adult

  • As summer except for a variable dark smudge behind the eye

Juvenile & first year

  • Black half-collar on rear of neck
  • Dark smudge behind the eye
  • Black 'W' across wings on outer primaries, secondary coverts, and tertials
  • Black bar on tail tip
  • Inner primaries and secondaries whiter than adults
  • Black bill (turns yellow at about a year old)

Similar species

Adult feeding chick on 4 cm wide nesting ledge
Photo © by Nutcracker
Newcastle City Guildhall, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England, 6 July 2016

Adults distinguished from similar-sized gulls like Common Gull or Short-billed Gull by the black wingtips lacking any white 'mirrors' (spots). Juveniles are often confused with Sabine's Gulls as they have a similar wing pattern, but can be distinguished by their different head pattern, and with experience, their subtly different wing shape and action in flight, typically gull-like unlike Sabine's Gull narrower pointed wings and more tern-like flight.


In Europe breeds around Iceland, the Faroes and Britain (absent from much of south and east where coasts lack suitable cliffs), coastal Norway and the north of the Kola Peninsula. In the far north breeds on Jan Mayen, Svalbard, Bear Island, Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Also breeds locally in small numbers in northwestern Denmark and Germany, the Channel Islands and northwest France, the north-western tip of Spain and at one site in Portugal. In the North American Atlantic breeds from Greenland, and southern Baffin Island to Nova Scotia in Canada. The Pacific Ocean populations breed round most of the Alaskan coast (except the far northeast and far southeast), and round the coast and islands of eastern Russia from the New Siberian Islands south to the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin.

Juvenile R. t. tridactyla in flight
Photo © by Geoff Pain
Bempton Cliffs, RSPB, Yorkshire, England, 12 August 2007

Colonies are occupied from late March (earlier in the south) to early September, dispersing after breeding. In winter occurs widely across mid-latitudes of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from the breeding range south to about Morocco and the Mediterranean east to Italy, in the eastern Atlantic, to around Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the western Atlantic, to Baja California in the eastern Pacific, and to central Japan in the western Pacific. Birds from Britain often cross the Atlantic to feed off Greenland and Newfoundland after the breeding season.

Has occurred as a vagrant to most European countries, the Middle East including Aqaba in Jordan and the Persian Gulf in Oman, north Africa, the Canary and Cape Verde Islands, South Africa, and also to the coasts of China (including two records from Hong Kong), Thailand, India, and most inland states in the USA. A truly astonishing record involved an adult in December 2016 on Borit Lake, Gilgit, Pakistan (Birdforum thread) - a remote mountain lake at 36.430°N 74.863°E, 2,650 m altitude and surrounded by the 7,500 m peaks of the Karakoram, 5,000 km from anywhere Kittiwakes usually occur.



Adult non-breeding R. t. pollicaris
Photo © by Joseph Morlan
Venice State Beach, Half Moon Bay, California, USA, 8 February 2020

There are 2 subspecies:[1]

  • R. t. tridactyla: (Atlantic)
  • Northern Atlantic; winters to Saragossa Sea and western Africa
    • Wings and back mid-grey. Smaller and shorter bill. Foot, uniquely among gulls, lacks a hind toe (Latin tridactyla, "three toes").
  • R. t. pollicaris: (Pacific)
  • Northern Pacific; winters to east China Sea and north-western Mexico
    • Wings and back slightly darker grey. Larger and longer bill. Foot with a very small hind toe (Latin pollex, thumb, hence pollicaris, "with a thumb").

The two subspecies may not be fully isolated, with e.g. two ringing recoveries of birds from Novaya Zemlya (in the range of the nominate subspecies) in Kamchatka (in the range of R. t. pollicaris). Mixing can be expected to increase as the Arctic ice cap melts with global warming.


When not breeding occurs at sea often far from land. Sometimes seen at freshwaters near the coast or far inland after severe weather.


By far the most abundant gull in the world, with an estimated population of 6–7 million pairs, divided roughly equally between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Recent declines noted in some areas.


Adult non-breeding R. t. pollicaris in flight
Photo © by Joseph Morlan
Pacifica, California, USA, 17 March 2020

Breeds on steep sea-cliffs, stacks and rocky islands, in some areas also on buildings. Can build nests on ledges just 4–5 cm wide; narrower ledges are preferred as they give greater safety from predators. An unusual urban colony is found on the River Tyne in northeast England, where the birds fly 16 km upriver to nest on city centre buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne (Northumberland) and adjacent Gateshead (County Durham).


Mainly marine invertebrates and fish. Outside breeding season also takes planktonic invertebrates, and has recently begun to exploit sewage lagoons.


Characteristic long call (“kitti-wake”) Black-legged Kittiwake vocal clip


Post-breeding dispersal from colonies to open ocean, usually well away from coast.


  1. Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, S. M. Billerman, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2019. The eBird/Clements Checklist of Birds of the World: v2019. Downloaded from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/clementschecklist/download/
  2. Fitter, R.S.R. & Richardson, R.A. (1966). Pocket Guide to British Birds. London: Collins.
  3. Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Kirwan, G.M., Christie, D.A. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2017). Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/54010 on 15 July 2017).
  4. Hatch, S. A., G. J. Robertson, and P. H. Baird (2020). Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bklkit.01
  5. Howell, S.N.G. & Dunn, J.L. (2007) Gulls of the Americas. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  6. Malling Olsen, K. & Larsson, H. (2003) Gulls of Europe, Asia and North America. Christopher Helm, London.

Recommended Citation

External Links

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