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Great Black-backed Gull

Larus marinus ORDER: CHARADRIIFORMES FAMILY: LARIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The king of the Atlantic waterfront, the Great Black-backed Gull is the largest gull in the world, with a powerful build and a domineering attitude. They harry other birds to steal their food and even hunt adult birds such as grebes and puffins. Adults are handsome with broad black wings, gleaming white head, and big yellow bill. North American populations were once severely threatened by the feather trade, but numbers rebounded in the twentieth century and they are now a common East Coast sight.

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Keys to identification Help

Gulls
Gulls
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    This is the largest species of gull in the world. They are stout-bodied, with broad wings, a thick neck, and a heavy, slightly bulbous bill.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are white with slaty-black upperwings and backs. They have dull pink legs, a yellow bill with a red spot near the tip, and darkish eyes. Juveniles are checkered gray-brown and white above; they have white-based, black-tipped tails, black bills, and blackish flight feathers. Over about 4 years, these crisp, cold-toned gulls transition to dark backed adults.

  • Behavior

    Great Black-backed Gulls are supreme opportunists. They follow fishing boats to pick up scraps of bait and discards, take garbage from trash cans and landfills, patrol beaches looking for morsels that wash up from the sea, harry other seabirds to steal their catches, and ruthlessly prey on smaller birds, eggs, and chicks. They feed with other species of gulls such as Herring Gulls, and roost communally at night.

  • Habitat

    Great Black-backed Gulls live along the Atlantic Coast and inland on the Great Lakes. They choose isolated, predator-free sites such as piers or islands for breeding, and then disperse away from the colony for the rest of the year to feed at sea, along coasts, and at landfills.

Range Map Help

Great Black-backed Gull Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Great Black-backed Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Very large, stocky gull
    • Dark charcoal gray back and wings
    • Heavy yellow bill with red spot near tip
    • Pale pink legs
    • © Bill Thompson, Provincetown, Massachusetts, November 2011
  • First winter

    Great Black-backed Gull

    First winter
    • Very large and heavy-bodied
    • Block-headed
    • Thick black bill with some pale pink at base
    • Grayish brown patterning on back/wings
    • © Zxgirl, Cape May, New Jersey, August 2010
  • Juvenile

    Great Black-backed Gull

    Juvenile
    • Very large gull
    • Thick, all-black bill on juvenile
    • Crisp checkerboard pattern on wings
    • Grayish brown streaking on crown and underparts
    • © Bill Thompson, Port Clyde, Maine, September 2012
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Great Black-backed Gull

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Very large and stocky gull
    • Dark charcoal, almost black on wings and back
    • Heavy yellow bill with red spot near tip
    • Faint streaking on head of nonbreeding adult
    • © Andrea Westmoreland, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, October 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Great Black-backed Gull

    Breeding adult
    • Distinctive large, dark gull
    • Heavy-bodied with stout, yellow bill
    • Dark charcoal/black above, bright white below
    • Solid white tail
    • © Maiabird, Allen's Pond, Massachusetts, May 2012

Similar Species

Similar Species

Adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls are smaller than Great Black-backed Gulls with paler gray back and wings; they also have yellowish legs and pale eyes. Adult Herring Gulls have much paler upperparts than Great Black-backed Gulls; they also have pale eyes and have heavily streaked heads in the fall through spring. Immature gulls of all of these species (and more) are much more difficult to identify than the adults; however, immature Great Black-backed Gulls usually stand out. They’re larger than other species with very white heads, massive black bills, and cold tones to their upperparts. Adult Western Gulls are somewhat smaller and have paler wings than Great Black-backed Gulls, and they are found on the West Coast (so their ranges don’t overlap). Adult Great Black-backed Gulls are so large and dark that they can be confused with adult Bald Eagles when flying at a great distance. The eagles show all-dark bodies as well as wings that are more uniformly broad.

Regional Differences

Larger than a Herring Gull, but smaller than a Brown Pelican.

Find This Bird

Along much of the East Coast of North America, you should be able to find Great Black-backed Gulls at beaches or fishing piers. They’ll be the largest gulls around—look for the huge size, big head and bill, and very broad wings. Adults have a very dark back and wings—very nearly black—making the identification fairly easy. Immatures are less obviously marked, but their large, bulky size and shape is the same as adults.

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