Great Black-backed Gull

Larus marinus

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1998
  • Thomas P. Good

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Great Black-backed Gull in North America.

This species also breeds in Europe. See text for details.

Adult Great Black-backed Gull, breeding plumage; Maine, June

June 1988; Appledore I., ME.  Definitive Alternate plumage.  ; photographer Marie Reed

First-winter Great Black-backed Gull; PEI, Canada, September

showing characteristic pale head and large dark bill; North Cape, Prince Edward Island, Canada, 28 Sep 2004.; photographer Brian L. Sullivan

“Its resemblance to the bald eagle was striking, as it soared aloft and wheeled in great circles, showing its broad black back and wings in sharp contrast with its snow-white head and tail, glistening in the sunlight. It surely seemed to be a king among the gulls, a merciless tyrant over its fellows, the largest and strongest of its tribe. No weaker gull dared to intrude upon its feudal domain.” (Bent 1921: 77)

The Great Black-backed Gull, common in the northeastern United States and northern Europe, is a large white-headed gull that inhabits the shorelines of oceans, seas, and large lakes. Its Palearctic breeding range includes Greenland, Iceland, Spitsbergen, and northern Europe. In North America, it breeds locally along the Atlantic Coast from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, north to Labrador and Baffin Island, and locally around the Great Lakes. In winter, this species may be found throughout its breeding range and south to South Carolina. In addition, it now winters in increasing numbers along the Gulf of Mexico.

The behavior and ecology of this species are not well studied, especially in North America. Although it is an opportunistic feeder, most individuals live primarily on natural prey such as marine fishes and invertebrates. It generally nests in loose colonies or as single pairs; successful nesting appears to require sites near water and safe from terrestrial predation—sites such as islands, offshore rocks, or abandoned piers.

Known to inhabitants of Newfoundland as Saddle-back Gull, Saddleback, Coffin-Bearer, Turkey Gull, Minister, Saddler Gull, Old Saddler, Pondy, English Gull, Black Back, and Great Grey Gull or Wagel (immatures; Montevecchi and Tuck 1987), the Great Black-backed Gull was nearly extirpated by feather hunters and egg collectors in North America during the nineteenth century. It has since recovered its numbers on this continent as a result of protection; similar trends have been reported in England and Wales. By the 1960s, North American populations may even have exceeded their historical numbers, possibly because of plentiful food derived from human refuse. In recent years this species has expanded its range southward into Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina and has displaced Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) from certain breeding habitats in New England.

Recommended Citation

Good, T. P. (1998). Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.