Happy 2009, from the gulls

Oh crap, it's 2009 already (one of my favourite lines from movies is: "They say time is the fire in which we burn". Quiz: where is it from?). Happy New Year! For no reason at all - other than that I'm reading a lot about seabirds at the moment - here is a neat photo of several Black-headed gulls Chroicocephalus ridibundus, taken by my good friend Tina Whitlock.


Chroicocephalus ridibundus is of course the bird that you probably know better as Larus ridibundus: if you missed the big bun-fight (reference) we had here at Tet Zoo about gull taxonomy - and indeed about taxonomy in general - go see the text and comments here. But I digress. One of these gulls is unusual - can you see why?

Incidentally, if you're not from Eurasia or northern Africa and have never seen this species (here in the UK it's ubiquitous*), it doesn't ever really have a black head: in summer its head is chocolate brown (some books say 'coffee brown', and it has been said [by Chris Mead no less] that a better name would be Cocoa-headed gull or Brown-headed gull), while in winter its head is white but with a dusky patch around the ear. The specific name ridibundus means 'laughing': in 1766, Linnaeus gave the species this name because it's called the 'Laughing gull' in some languages, but to confuse things note that there's an American species called the Laughing gull... and its scientific name is Leucophaeus atricilla. Atricilla (chosen by Linnaeus in 1758) means 'black-tailed', but don't get that confused with the Black-tailed gull (aka Japanese gull), which is Larus crassirostris (named by Louis Vieillot in 1818), meaning 'thick-billed gull', not to be confused with the Large-billed gull, which John Latham named L. pacificus in 1802 (it's also called the Pacific gull). Oh, and the scientific name given by Peter Simon Pallas (in 1811) to the Caspian gull is L. cachinnans - which also means 'laughing' - and the Mediterranean gull is, thanks to Coenraad Jacob Temminck, Ichthyaetus melanocephalus... and melanocephalus means 'black-headed'.

* This is a recent thing: the species only started wintering in London, for example, 100 years ago.

Anyway, back to work...

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Why, I believe that line is from Malcolm McDowell's character in Star Trek Generations.

Uh...is that gull on the far left missing a foot?

By Adam Pritchard (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

The Swedish-language Wikipedia has this (unsourced) story about the black-headed gull's name:

Despite that the black-headed gull [Sw. skrattmås, lit. "laugh-gull"] really doesn't have a laughing call is it also called "laughing" in its scientific name, ie. ridibundus. This name was borrowed by Linnaeus from Ornithologia by Mathurin Jacques Brisson, 1760. In this Brisson deskribes the laughing gull (Larus atricilla) and the black-headed gull as subspecies of the same species. Brisson calls them Gavis ridibunda. The laughing gull which is called "laughing gull" in English really does have a laughing call, unlike the black-headed gull. Because Linnaeus did not know the black-headed gull very well, as it did not breed in Sweden in the 18th century, he relied on Brisson and gave it so to speak the wrong name.

I suppose this means the Sw. common name is derived from the scientific name.

(The Germans too call it "laugh-gull" - also secondary?)

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

The mangled character there is supposed to be an 'a' with a little ring on top.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

Ah, the vernacular names of gulls. If only the confusion ended with ridibundus, but no...

If you go birdwatching in a German-speaking country, don't think that Heringsmöwe is the herring gull Larus argentatus. Heringsmöwe is the lesser black-backed gull Larus fuscus. Herring gull, on the other hand, is Silbermöwe, i.e., 'silver gull', in German (which, incidentally, is also what the Latin argentatus refers to). And Silbermöwe, in turn, must not be confused with the silver gull Larus (Chroicocephalus) novaehollandiae of Australasia, which is Silberkopfmöwe in German...

Oh for *&#>:s sake!! I feel your pain, Andreas. I tried to write the small 'o' with two dots above it...

Hey, is there a non-HTML way around it? Heringsm'o'we. Nah, that looks awful.

You need to insert the html to get accents to work here on the Sb platform: THAT'S WHY you'll find a very handy link to 'html codes for characters and symbols' down near the bottom of the sidebar!

The gull on the far right (not the one in the air) has no black marking
at the base of its neck, unlike the other three.

test to see if ö works (that's & ouml; without the space)



I did try your HTML code link originally, Darren, but for some reason those codes don't work for me. And I'm not tech savvy enough to find out why.

Anyway, back to the original question: one of the gulls is missing a foot, as Adam said.

I hope the umlauts work...
The German name of C. ridibundus, Lachmöwe, also translates as Laughing gull while I. melanocephalus is called Schwarzkopfmöwe (Black-headed gull). L. atricilla is called Aztekenmöwe (Aztec gull).
Some more ornithological "False friends": Brandgans sounds it might mean Brent Goose*, while it actually means Shelduck, while Schellente means not Shelduck (Ente means duck) but Goldeneye! Also, Kohlmeise means not Coal Tit, but Great Tit.
*This one also has a confusing scientific name: Branta bernicla, while the Barnacle Goose is B. leucopsis.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

I reckon its a missing foot too, the spot that looks like an eye on the right hand gull is actually the black spot and its head is twisted round.

When I'm having umlaut problems i fall back on the old fashioned adding an e
oe, ae, ue.

On a side note, for those who aren't linguists, the two dots represent an E written above the letter in the old (now obsolete) German handwriting called Suetterlin.

So an umlaut was once an 'e'? No wonder German words are still spelled that way in English!

Shall we call the one on the left 'stubby?'

How much of a "sea" bird are gulls, exactly? I come from a town in the Sierra Nevada in California, which is not particularly close to the sea. We always had a pretty healthy gull population. There is a decent sized manmade reservoir, but I always wondered if gulls far inland was normal or if we had a weirdo population.

I'm guessing that it is that the one gull is missing a leg... on a related note, where I am currently (San Diego), there appears to be a huge number of birds with just one leg. At the outdoor seating at restaurants probably 75% of the birds only have one leg (mainly starlings and pigeons)... on the UCSD campus, there are fewer birds with one leg, but many of them seem to have mangled feet. Is this just due to run ins with people or are there other causes for this?

I've also noticed that almost all of the smaller birds on campus have leg bands... is this common and I just never noticed it before or is San Diego a big bird banding location?

I've seen lots of urban birds - well, urban pigeons - with missing toes and/or missing feet, including individuals with no feet at all. I assume that these deformities result from close encounters with anti-pigeon proofing: lots of building (or parts of buildings) now have spikes and/or netting protecting signage and stonework. Birds must sometimes get stabbed or tangled, and lost or damaged feet are the result. It might be worth hanging out in the local pedestrian precinct in an effort to get good photos. I did once see a Collared dove that had died after getting entangled in anti-pigeon netting.

There are some sourced suggestions (Staphylococcus, avian pox, vitamin deficiency, discarded wire) here, and some more speculative suggestions (rats, chewing gum, cultists, Chinese supermarkets) here. Determining whether any of them are true is left as an exercise for the reader.

I have seen pigeons with threads wrapped around their feet that they may have tried to use as nesting material; but I have also seen gulls with missing or bent back feet.
I wonder if some of these are due to young birds misjudging their landing speeds and damaging their legs but surviving because they can still fly.
Wild terrestrial animals with missing legs are rare because it interferes with their locomotion, and they get picked off by predators or cannot hunt; however pet cats and dogs missing a limb are not uncommon.
You could also wonder if birds with missing legs are commoner around humans because of the availability of easily procured food and fewer predators being present.

I don't believe the gull is missing a leg. This is an excellent example of how our brains often see what we assume is there, and not reality. This is the kind of thing responsible for many "cryptid" sightings, I'm sure.

By TaishaMcGee (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink

Not actually *foot* damage, but I saw a snowy egret with a leg that hung down when flying rather than being tucked up. I assumed it would become prey easily, but I saw it again a couple months later, so I guess it wasn't that much of an impairment.

By William Miller (not verified) on 01 Jan 2009 #permalink


How much of a "sea" bird are gulls, exactly?

Good question. The answer to it depends on which gulls you mean. Some gulls, such as the kittiwakes, are exclusively marine. In contrast, a few species breed pretty much exclusively inland and are only found at sea costs during migration. Other gull species are regular breeders both at sea and by freshwater.

I come from a town in the Sierra Nevada in California, which is not particularly close to the sea. We always had a pretty healthy gull population. There is a decent sized manmade reservoir, but I always wondered if gulls far inland was normal or if we had a weirdo population.

I don't know the particulars of your Sierra Nevada case (e.g., what species of gull are they?), but my guess is that the gulls haven't been there "always"* and that the key words here are "manmade reservoir". Many gull species have greatly benefitted from human activity (the fisheries industry, agriculture, garbage dumps, etc.), and that has allowed them to spread to new habitats within geologically very recent times. In some cases, marine gull species have started to breed inland, and vice versa.

* They may, for all I know, have been there for decades or even centuries, but that's a very short time in geological terms. It may be noted that gull remains are absent from the fossil-rich Pleistocene Rancho La Brea tar pit deposits of California (Hertel, 1995).

In another recent thread, Tommy Tyrberg made an interesting comment that possibly relates to this question, and bears repeating. Along the Mediterranean Sea, there is an almost complete lack of gulls in the pre-Holocene fossil record, the only exception being the nowadays rare and endangered Audouin's gull Larus audouinii. Today, there are many other breeding gull species in the Mediterranean region, but apparently they are relatively recent colonists in this area. Perhaps most gulls thrive and do best when humans live nearby (the occasional loss of limb notwithstanding)?


Hertel, F. 1995. Ecomorphological indicators of feeding behavior in Recent and fossil raptors. The Auk 112, 890-903.

*Chroicocephalus ridibundus* is indeed called Lachm�we (laughing gull) in German. The call of this bird, however, doesn't sound very much like laughter. It has therefore been suggested that the prefix "Lach-" is not derived from "lachen"="to laugh" but from "Lache"="very small pond or puddle", and the name doesn't mean laughing gull, but puddle gull.

Johannes, that's interesting: I'd never really understood why the call had been likened to laughing. And Black-headed gulls are frequently associated with freshwater pools and marshes (particularly in winter), so 'Lache' gull doesn't seem inappropriate.

And... yes, the quote is one of Dr Tolian Soran's (= Malcom McDowell's) lines from Star Trek: Generations. I say it on a daily basis.

BTW - a gull question: when the Herring Gull eats a soap bar, does the label stay on or goes off?

Answer. Stays on - seen in gull pellet. From somebody who used to spend New Year Eve day on a rubbish tip, before oing to a party.


And... yes, the quote is one of Dr Tolian Soran's (= Malcom McDowell's) lines from Star Trek: Generations. I say it on a daily basis.

I don't know why, but my first thought was that the quote was from Conan the Barbarian...

Jerzy: Soap, eh? Well, I guess a bar of soap goes down easier than a jalapeno pepper; I once watched a mew gull Larus canus repeatedly try to swallow one of those, only to immidiately spit the pepper out again. That went on for a whole minute at least. Then the gull flew away, jalapeno in its bill, with other gulls in hot pursuit...

Let's not start talking about the things that gulls will eat. Ok, let's. Urban Herring gulls at least are significant coprophages, their early-morning activities ridding several urban green spaces of dog faeces. Nice.

Ivory gulls eat a lot of polar bear and seal shit.

johannes is right. C. ridibundus occurs along rivers and lakes very far inland (for example in Linz, 200 km west of Vienna...) and is certainly named after that. Lache/Lacke is evidently the same word as English lake and Latin lacus.

Forget HTML, just view the page in Unicode (UTF-8) -- which ought to be standard anyway.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

Those discrepant gull nomenclatures are hilarious... no wonder the gulls are laughing!

Incidentally does argentatus mean silver, or silvered/silvery?

"They say time is the fire in which we burn"
And... yes, the quote is one of Dr Tolian Soran's (= Malcom McDowell's) lines from Star Trek: Generations. I say it on a daily basis.

Hmmm... it certainly has a raw mythic quality, but seems a bit fatalistic for my taste. (And it didn't seem to work out too well for Toran). Although I appreciate it may aptly be used ironically or in exasperation sometimes! How about (or at least I'd rather say):

"Time is the raw material, the fuel, which we ignite with the spark of our spirit's passion, to generate fulfilment; and sustained, enthusiastic effort, the flame with which it burns" ?

(The metaphor rings true if you've ever, like me, had the experience of people 'pouring cold water' on your beloved ideas, trying to 'douse' an enthusiasm - in the warmth of which you'd hitherto been basking happily... Those people known as a 'wet blanket'.)

I hereby adopt that as my New Year's Resolution... to see time that way :-D

have a great 2009 Darren!

By Graham King (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

does argentatus mean silver, or silvered/silvery?

Silvered. The metal is argentum, and the colour appears to be argenteus/-a/-um.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 03 Jan 2009 #permalink

Johannes said:
"*Chroicocephalus ridibundus* is indeed called Lachm�we (laughing gull) in German. The call of this bird, however, doesn't sound very much like laughter. It has therefore been suggested that the prefix "Lach-" is not derived from "lachen"="to laugh" but from "Lache"="very small pond or puddle", and the name doesn't mean laughing gull, but puddle gull. "

This could be true for German, yes, but definitely not when it comes to Finnish. The common name for C. ridibundus is naurulokki, 'nauru' meaning laughter and 'lokki' a gull.

Just to make things more complicated, the herring gull L. argentatus is here called harmaalokki, the grey gull.

By Maija Karala (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

The Finnish name might be translated from the Swedish one, and the Swedish one a mistranslation of the German one.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 04 Jan 2009 #permalink

There is a (very crude) rule of thumb regarding which gulls typically live at freshwater and which at marine habitats. Most dark-hooded gulls are originally inland/freshwater species, whereas most white-headed gulls are originally coastal/marine.

A gull with a missing leg? "A bird like that ... oh, a bird like that ... oh, a bird like that you don't eat all at once." (Sorry, wrong joke.)

Strictly speaking, the word "umlaut" really refers to the sound, while the pair of dots that indicate the sound is called a "dieresis". I'm fascinated to learn that it really is a degenerate "e".

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 05 Jan 2009 #permalink

After some research on Gallica and Google Books, I don't think the name Lachmöwe comes from Lache. The Swedish wikipedia seems to be quite accurate, except for the subspecies part (a confusion caused by Brisson's non-binomial nomenclature), and it's Gavia (then mostly used for gulls, not loons), not Gavis. Brisson gives a lot of German names for this gull, but Lachmöwe is not among them. However, citing Catesby as a source, he gave "Mouette rieuse" as the French and "Langhing Gull" (sic) as the English name of his Gavia ridibunda (L. atricilla), and he remarked for both this and his G. ridibunda phaenicopos (L. ridibundus) that the call sounded like laughter. J. M. Bechstein used the name "Schwarzköpfige Lachmeve" (Black-headed Laughing Gull) for L. ridibundus in 1791.
Sources: Brisson and Bechstein.
So I conclude that the name Lachmöwe indeed means laughing gull and that it is probably a translation of the scientific name, which originally referred to L. atricilla.
There are also two papers on this (here and here). I haven't seen them, but according to the abstracts the authors seem to have come to the same conclusions as I have.

By Lars Dietz (not verified) on 07 Jan 2009 #permalink