Gulls of New Zealand

Gulls are fascinating creatures, yet they are often disliked by people: “they are noisy”, “they poo everywhere”, “they are aggressive”… These people forget that we are the invaders, and that gulls, like all wildlife, are just trying to adapt to the changes we bring to the natural world. At that, they have proved expert, thriving on our waste. Ask a larophile (a fan of gulls; from Laridae, the latin name of the gull family) the best place for gull-watching, and the answer will most likely be the local landfill! A geo-tracking study showed that gulls nesting in Belgium were doing regular trip to a certain place in France… that proved to be a chips factory! Oh, and haven’t you seen this picture of a gull that fell into a tikka masala vat in the UK, turning completely orange in its quest for food scraps? In Helsinki, it’s a lot of fun to watch gulls diving on people’s ice creams at the market square (Kauppatori). They make the scoops fall to the ground, for they know humans won’t pick them up from there. Then the feast begins. Unfortunately, in a natural world unbalanced by human activity, gulls can also be a nuisance for more sensitive species, eating eggs and chicks.

Herring gull (Larus argentatus) on the ferry to Texel (NL)

Thus, gulls are generally disliked, or ignored. “It’s just a gull”, they’ll say. That said, however smart they can be, they also suffer from human disturbances, and some species are threatened.

In this post, I’ll present you the three species of gulls that nest in New Zealand. I’ll try to include interesting trivia instead of boring data like length and weight. A loooong time ago, I wrote an article about the gulls of Helsinki, with some identification tips. This one will be more simple ūüėÄ

Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus)

First, you need to know that New Zealanders use their own names for many bird species, not following the international nomenclature. Therefore, if you travel down here, you’ll hear this gull referred as “Black-backed gull”. It’s a species widespread in the Southern Hemisphere, including South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. It’s very common in New Zealand.

It’s a large bird, similar in size to the European herring gull (Larus argentatus). Its latin name comes from the Dominican Order, a Catholic religious order who wore black and white… so yes, if you sea a large black-backed gull in New Zealand, it’s probably a Kelp gull. Youngsters are dark brown.

Silver gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae)

Much smaller, with a light grey mantle, this one is somehow the equivalent of Europes’s Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus)… except it lacks the hood! Present in New Caledonia and Australia as well, it’s very common. Here in New Zealand, it’s called Red-billed gull (ssp scopulinus) and used to be considered a separate species.

Once again, just a seagull… boring, too common, a nuisance. Right?

Well, they are declining too. The current climate crisis affects fish stocks, agriculture destroys their breeding grounds, and introduced predators take their toll too. Young birds are fed by people (chips, bread…) during summer… only to die when winter comes, unable to forage by themselves after being dependent on humans. The main colonies have declined by 80-100% since the 1960s.

Further read: Their chips are down: New Zealand seagulls under threat after ‘unbelievable declines’, The Guardian

As we’ve seen, people don’t generally like gull, and they are therefore not very sympathetic to their struggles. Silver gulls are now classified as “nationally vulnerable” in New Zealand.

Black-billed gull (Chroicocephalus bulleri)

This is the “most threatened gull species in the world”, endemic to New Zealand. It breeds inland, on endangered braided rivers, and has steadily declined (minus 80% in the last 30 years). Only about 60,000 pairs remain.

Braided rivers are often subject to flooding, thus Black-billed gull eggs and chicks are regularly lost. We may shed tears to such unfortunate events, but to be fair, they do not threaten the species by themselves: river-nesting birds are adapted to these conditions, they are resilient. If possible, they will start nesting again after the event, maybe in a different location. No, the real risk is human-born: the climate crisis might make such floodings stronger and more frequent, and other disturbances (agriculture, habitat loss, introduced pests…) brings pressure on the gulls that may prevent them from recovering from the floodings.

Further read: The Silent World, my previous piece about the plight of wildlife in New Zealand, especially forest birds.

Oh, and there’s also the sheer stupidity of locals: some have driven with their 4-wheel-drive vehicles straight into the colonies, or walked there, or shot them for fun. Just another seagull, right?


Black-billed gulls are similar to Silver gulls, but the bill is black (that’s not very obvious from a distance) and more slender, the head is less round and the wingtips are whiter. They are not very difficult to find: I’ve seen them in Wanaka, on the lake front, or in Lumsden, at the freedom camping area. In winter, they favour coastal habitat, and I’ve seen them in Miranda and Lake Ferry for instance.

Gull or not, smart or not, all birds are beautiful ‚̧


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