Already a subscriber? Sign in Don't have a subscription? Subscribe Now
Great Black-backed Gull
Larus marinus
– Family
Authors: Good, Thomas P.

Welcome to the Birds of North America Online!

Welcome to BNA Online, the leading source of life history information for North American breeding birds. This free, courtesy preview is just the first of 14 articles that provide detailed life history information including Distribution, Migration, Habitat, Food Habits, Sounds, Behavior and Breeding. Written by acknowledged experts on each species, there is also a comprehensive bibliography of published research on the species.

A subscription is needed to access the remaining articles for this and any other species. Subscription rates start as low as $5 USD for 30 days of complete access to the resource. To subscribe, please visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology E-Store.

If you are already a current subscriber, you will need to sign in with your login information to access BNA normally.

Subscriptions are available for as little as $5 for 30 days of full access! If you would like to subscribe to BNA Online, just visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology E-Store.


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

The Americas

Breeding Range

Nearctic (Fig. 1). Occurs throughout year on East Coast of North America from Labrador to N. Carolina, and in Great Lakes region. In Canada, breeds at mouth of Leaf River on Ungava Bay of n. Quebec, from Cape Chidley in n. Labrador south along immediate coasts of Labrador and Quebec, along St. Lawrence River to Montreal, Anticosti I., Magdalen Is.; Newfoundland, Prince Edward I., and along coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (Godfrey 1986, Erskine 1992, Gauthier and Aubrey 1996). Also breeds in Ontario at several sites along northern shore of Lake Ontario and at one site along eastern shore of Lake Huron (Cadman et al. 1987). Does not breed continuously along coast, especially in areas with steep shores and no islands, as in upper Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton I. (Erskine 1992), and some portions of n. Gaspé Peninsula (Gauthier and Aubrey 1996). Also breeds at inland lakes in e. New Brunswick, s. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and locally in s. Quebec.

In U.S., breeds along immediate coast (particularly on offshore islands) in all states from Maine south to s. New Jersey. Local gaps in breeding range exist where suitable nesting conditions are lacking. For example, on Long I., NY, most bred only on southern and eastern shores (Meade 1988). South of New Jersey, breeds along Atlantic Coast of Maryland and Virginia on Delmarva Peninsula, coast of extreme n. North Carolina, and locally along Chesapeake Bay of Maryland, where breeding recently confirmed in Baltimore, Dorchester, and Somerset Cos. (Portnoy et al. 1981, Robbins and Blom 1996, Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas unpubl.). Breeding range continues to expand at inland sites, and south along Atlantic Coast. First Vermont breeding record at Lake Champlain in 1983 (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). First Delaware breeding record at s. Mispillion River jetty in 1986 (Hess et al. in press), but breeding does not yet appear to extend into Delaware Bay. Major breeding colonies in U.S.: Gardiners I., NY; Smuttynose I., ME; and Monomoy Point, MA (Buckley and Buckley 1984).

Winter Range

Figure 1 . Winters from Newfoundland and Gulf of St. Lawrence south throughout breeding range and south along Atlantic Coast to at least central Florida (Brevard Co.; Robertson and Woolfenden 1992). During winter, found more continuously along coast than during breeding season. Also winters in interior at large lakes, landfills, and along major rivers throughout se. Maine, s. New Hampshire, Massachusetts (except northwest), Rhode Island, Connecticut, w. Vermont, New York (except Adirondack Mtns.), extreme s. Quebec, s. Ontario (between w. Lake Ontario and n. Lake Huron), easternmost Michigan, New Jersey, Delaware, and e. Maryland. Regular winter visitor throughout e. Great Lakes, including Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron. Winters locally along s. Lake Michigan, very rarely west to w. Lake Superior, where most records are from Duluth, MN, area (Janssen 1987), and very rarely along Mississippi River, where several records are from Missouri (Robbins and Easterla 1992). Regular winter range also extends inland along major rivers into se. Pennsylvania (Delaware, Schuylkill, and Susquehanna Rivers), w. Maryland (Potomac and Patuxent Rivers), e. Virginia (James and Rappahannock Rivers), and less commonly e. North Carolina. Along Atlantic Coast, species generally decreases in numbers and becomes more restricted to the coast southward (Christmas Bird Count data). Southern limit of main distribution may be influenced by surface water temperatures; south of N. Carolina, mean surface water temperature of ocean rises above 16°C (Root 1988).

Also rare and irregular in winter from s. Florida (Robertson and Woolfenden 1992), west along Gulf Coast to Mississippi (Toups and Jackson 1987), occurring less frequently west to Texas (Rappole and Blacklock 1994), and n. Tamualipas and n. Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico (Howell and Webb 1995).

Vagrant Records

Vagrants occasionally recorded far from main breeding and winter ranges. Vagrant records (primarily fall through spring) have occurred east to Bermuda (Amos 1991) and Puerto Rico (Perez-Rivera 1988), south to Belize (Howell and Webb 1995) and Cuba (O. Garrido and A. Kirkconnell pers. comm.), and west to s. British Columbia (Campbell et al. 1990) and Colorado (Andrews and Righter 1992).

Summer Nonbreeding

Subadults tend to remain on wintering grounds throughout year until they have reached fourth or fifth year.

Outside The Americas

Palearctic breeding distribution includes Greenland, Iceland, Faeroe Is., Shetland Is., Spitsbergen, n. Scandinavia, and n. Russia south to British Isles, nw. France, n. Denmark, n. Germany, and Estonia (Cramp and Simmons 1983). Approximate southern limits of winter range extend to Mediterranean, Black, and Caspian Seas, and n. Africa (Grant 1986).

Historical Changes

See Table 1 . In Canada, breeding populations generally increasing. In Newfoundland: on Funk I., breeding population increased 35-fold from 1956 to 1987; on Great, Green, and Gull Is. in Witless Bay, breeding population doubled to 250 pairs from 1970 to 1979 (Montevecchi and Tuck 1987). In Quebec, breeding population has been increasing in sanctuaries on north shore of St. Lawrence River since 1950s; and increasing on Magdalen Is. and Gaspé Peninsula since 1970s (Gauthier and Aubry 1996). In Maritime Provinces, breeding population has increased dramatically during twentieth century; has expanded from 1 colony on Lake George, Nova Scotia, in 1900 to 34,000 pairs throughout provinces in 1986 (Erskine 1992).

Date of first occurrence in U.S. unknown. Atlantic Coast populations decimated by feather hunters and egg collectors in 1800s; only wintering birds at Isles of Shoals, ME, by late 1800s. By 1900, bred only as far south as Isle au Haut, Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, and wintered south to New Jersey, rarely to n. Florida (Bent 1921); no breeding recorded in U.S. until 1920s (Gross 1945). Earliest U.S. breeding records at Duck I., Isles of Shoals, ME, in 1928 (Jackson and Allen 1932); other reports in Maine (Norton and Allen 1931) and Essex Co., MA (Eaton 1931). In 1931, breeding pairs recorded on 10 islands along Maine coast (Norton and Allen 1931); by 1965, 12,400 pairs nested on 180 islands from Maine to Long I., NY (Drury 1973, Nisbet 1978).

Since 1960s, general southward expansion at expense of Laughing Gulls (Larus atricilla) and Herring Gulls (McGill-Harelstad 1985, Cavanagh 1992, TPG). First state breeding records are as follows: 1931 in Massachusetts (Veit and Petersen 1993), 1942 in New York (Andrle and Carroll 1988), 1970 in Virginia (Gain 1987) and in N. Carolina (Parnell and Soots 1975).

In Great Lakes, uncommon before 1931. Since 1934, overwintering populations on Lake Huron and Lake Ontario have increased. Winter counts on Lake Ontario increased in 1940s and 1950s, fluctuated from 1954 to 1974, and increased dramatically in 1976 (Angehrn et al. 1979). Winter counts on southern shore of Lake Erie increased dramatically from 1950–1959 to 1975–1984 (Dolbeer and Bernhardt 1986). First recorded breeding on Little Haystack I. in Lake Huron, Ontario, in 1954; regularly nested on 2 islands in e. Lake Ontario in 1960s and 1970s (Angehrn et al. 1979, Peck and James 1983). During 1981–1985, single pairs confirmed at 6 islands in Lake Ontario and 1 island in Lake Huron (Blokpoel 1987). Between 1988 and 1991, 12 breeding attempts reported at 8 sites in Lake Huron (Ewins et al. 1992). Westernmost breeding record (also first Wisconsin breeding record) was in 1994 on Spider I. (Tessen 1994). Confirmed breeding on Four Brothers Is. in Lake Champlain, NY, in 1975 and on Oneida Lake near Syracuse, NY, in 1983 (Meade 1988). First Vermont breeding record at Lake Champlain in 1983 (Laughlin and Kibbe 1985). First Delaware breeding record at s. Mispillion River jetty in 1986 (Hess et al. in press).

Fossil History

Prehistoric findings from Green Mound middens in Florida dated to 550 and 1200 (Brodkorb 1967). Findings from Holocene on island of Huar in Yugoslavia, where birds in general represented 0.26% of fauna uncovered (Malez-Bacic 1983).

Gulls not abundant in fossil record. One early Pliocene (4.5–5.0 million yr ) and 2 Pleistocene (0.6–1.8 million yr ) North American extinct species are named (Brodkorb 1967, Olson 1985). Additional late-Neogene records of Larus spp. from Arizona, California, and N. Carolina (Olson 1985, Bickart 1990, Chandler 1990). Great Black-backed Gull not closely related to any of these species.

Great Black-backed Gull and/or Glaucous Gull remains have been recovered from at least 15 separate 3,000- to 4,000-yr-old burials of maritime archaic people at Port au Choix, Newfoundland. Recent finds from sites in n. Labrador show Dorset Eskimos’ (about 100 – 500) dependence on seabirds; one-fourth of 1,300 avian elements from these sites are large larids (Montevecchi and Tuck 1987).