Living Bird Magazine
Black-legged KittiwakeRissa tridactyla
- ORDER: Charadriiformes
- FAMILY: Laridae
A dainty gull of northern oceans, Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in teeming colonies on cliffs of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Arctic. On these sheer, rocky sea stacks, their unceasing cries of “kittiwake” join with the crashing surf to make the classic sound of a seabird colony. Their neat white and gray plumage is accented by a bright yellow bill and jet-black legs. Kittiwakes are true pelagic seabirds, spending virtually their entire lives on the open ocean and only touching land during the nesting season.More ID Info
Find This Bird
The best way to appreciate Black-legged Kittiwakes is to visit a nesting colony in the summer. At other seasons the best way to find them is to take a pelagic birding trip. In the Pacific a half-day boat trip may be all that’s required, but in the Atlantic you’re likely to need a full day to reach their deepwater habitat. On occasion kittiwakes can be seen from land, particularly in New England sites such as Cape Cod, or when stray juveniles turn up on beaches or inland reservoirs.
- Gaviota Tridáctila (Spanish)
- Mouette tridactyle (French)
- Cool Facts
- The hind toe on the foot of the Black-legged Kittiwake is reduced to a tiny bump, giving the bird its scientific name tridactyla, meaning "three-toed" (instead of four on each foot). Pacific birds actually have larger, more developed hind toes than Atlantic birds.
- More predation occurs on Black-legged Kittiwake nests in years of scarce food because the nests are more likely to be left unattended as the parents search for food.
- The Black-legged Kittiwake typically nests on cliff ledges, but will occasionally nest on buildings and shipwrecks.
- To seabird enthusiasts, a juvenile (or “first-cycle”) Black-legged Kittiwake is known as a “tarrock.” This word, most widely used in northern Scotland, is one of the few English words derived from the Greenlandic language. In Greenlandic, tattarok means “young kittiwake”—but confusingly, the English word “tarrock” can also refer to a Common Murre or Common Tern.
- Black-legged Kittiwakes can have atypical families. Females sometimes pair with females to raise chicks, and males sometimes maintain two female partners at the same nest, with both females laying eggs. These arrangements are thought to arise during times when birds of one sex outnumber the other at a colony.
- The oldest Black-legged Kittiwake ever recorded was at least 20 years, 2 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased in Alaska.