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Lesser Black-backed Gull Life History



Throughout their wide breeding range from Iceland to Siberia, Lesser Black-backed Gulls nest in coastal areas, rocky islands, old lava flows, cliffs, saltmarshes, grassy or sandy islands in lakes and rivers, and even on rooftops. During migration and in winter, they live near rivers, lakes, marshes, estuaries, beaches, fields, and the open ocean. Like Herring Gulls and many other gull species, they sometimes forage at landfills and other locations where food waste is available, including large fishing boats such as trawlers.

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OmnivoreLike all large gull species, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are opportunistic foragers that eat almost anything. Through most of the year, they eat fish and marine invertebrates that they capture by dipping down to the water in flight, swimming, walking, or by stamping their feet rapidly in wet sand to expose small crustaceans. On seashores, they sometimes investigate wrack for prey, flipping over vegetation and rocks as a turnstone does, and they may eat seaweed in the process. They also eat carrion and the eggs and nestlings of other bird species, as well as the occasional rodent. Some Lessers have learned to open mussels and other mollusks by flying high into the air and dropping them on rocks, streets, or sidewalks. Some colonies raise their chicks chiefly on garbage from landfills rather than small fish. In winter, many Lessers follow trawlers to feed on discarded fish and other sea creatures, while others hunt for crayfish in rice fields (in Spain) and eat rice along with earthworms and various insects. They readily eat ripe berries when available, usually near nesting grounds.Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundNests are set on the ground, often on an island or isolated beach, less often on a cliff edge or rooftop.

Nest Description

Male and female build a mound of grasses, algae, and decaying debris that has a small central cup lined with dry stalks, grass, lichens, and feathers.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-4 eggs
Egg Description:

Brown, olive, or blue-green, most with dark brown spots

Condition at Hatching:Covered with down and unable to walk for several days.
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Ground ForagerLesser Black-backed Gulls return to breeding grounds in spring, soon after ice and snow have melted. They perform courtship displays but because this species is monogamous and often maintains that bond for several nesting seasons in a row, the displays are sometimes abbreviated. As in other large gull species, female Lessers solicit food from males by rapid upward movements of the bill, similar to a begging chick. Males respond by regurgitating food for her. Male and female maintain their bond by preening each other's head and neck feathers. Once the nest site is established and eggs are laid, the pair exchanges greetings of head-tossing, calling (with neck outstretched), and a display called “choking” (with head down, bill open, as though something were stuck in the throat). Lesser Black-backed Gulls are territorial around the nest, and both adults defend eggs and young. Males especially strike imposing postures and call loudly to warn other males away from the female and the nest. Fights in this species include pecks, pulling wings and tails with bills, and battering with wrists. Pairs usually nest in colonies. Away from the nest area, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are gregarious, gathering in flocks to feed, rest, and preen. During the breeding season, nonbreeding birds usually gather near colonies in “clubs.” When foraging, Lessers often fight over food, scrapping and squabbling when one has a prize morsel, but they, in turn, are often attacked by larger species such as Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. Nevertheless, Lessers often join large assemblages of gulls and other waterbirds where food is plentiful.Back to top


Low Concern

There are small but increasing numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls in North America, but little or no nesting here. Worldwide, most populations are stable or increasing. In western Europe and Greenland, the species is increasing in numbers and expanding both its wintering and breeding ranges. Populations of the subspecies fuscus around the Baltic Sea declined precipitously, by 75%, between 1970 and 2013. This was due to pesticide poisoning and Herring Gull predation. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1 million and rates the species a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern.

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Ellis, J. C., S. M. Bogdanowicz, M. C. Stoddard and L. W. Clark. (2014). Hybridization of a Lesser Black-backed Gull and Herring Gulls in eastern North America. Wilson Journal of Ornithology 126 (2):338-345.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Post, P.W. and Lewis, R.H. (1995). Lesser Black-backed Gull in the Americas: occurrence and subspecific identity. Part 1. Taxonomy, distribution and migration. Birding 27: 283-290.

Post, P.W. and Lewis, R.H. (1995). Lesser Black-backed Gull in the Americas: occurrence and subspecific identity. Part 2. Field identification. Birding 27: 371-383.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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