As Winter approaches a bird more often associated with the coastline will become a familiar sight in London’s streets, parks and playing fields; along the River Thames, at the Welsh Harp reservoir or the Wetland Centre in Barnes – and across the London canal network.

The black-headed gull has, in recent years, become as much associated with inland waterways as coastline and the term ‘sea’ gull now doesn’t quite fit. It isn’t really a black-headed bird either, but more chocolate-brown – in fact, for much of the year, it has a white head. The juvenile is also white headed, and brown winged. Mature, they are however the ‘whitest-snowiest’ species of gull and this is a good way of identifying them.

Black-headed gulls are sociable, quarrelsome, noisy birds, usually seen in small groups or flocks, often gathering into larger parties where there is plenty of food, or when they are roosting.

Some Londoners may even consider them to be pests as they noisily scavenge for food around rubbish tips, take food intended for the ducks in our parks or roost in large numbers on some roofs.  This can lead to a misconception that this smallest of gulls is both common, and thriving. But comparing data from the British Trust of Ornithology Bird Atlas 1988-91 survey with that from the recent Bird Atlas 2007-11 survey has shown that the distribution of breeding black-headed gull is rapidly changing and their numbers are declining.

Traditionally the black-headed gull has been both an inland and coastal bird, breeding on upland lakes and coastal marshes and lowlands and a winter visitor to rural and urban areas throughout lowland Britain.  Increasingly however the black-headed gull has been breeding on inland lakes and gravel pits in southern England, south Wales and to a lesser extent southern Ireland while decreasing on more traditional sites in northern England, North Wales, Scotland and north and central Ireland. Recent data shows that the number of sites where the species is declining now far outweighs those that are increasing suggesting a significant population decline.  The reasons for this decline are not totally understood but could be linked with habitat change or direct competition with other species in upland areas.

Oh, and by the way…
(courtesy of Wikipedia)

Kehaar in the classic ‘Watership Down’ was a black-headed gull who is forced, by an injured wing, to take refuge on Watership Down. He is characterised by his frequent impatience, guttural accent and unusual phrasing. Eventually, after Hazel and the others befriend him, he flies over the countryside in an attempt to discover other warrens where the rabbits might find does to mate with. He discovers the Efrafa warren, and after helping the rabbits he flies back to the sea to rejoin his colony, though he frequently returns for a visit. According to Richard Adams, Kehaar was based on a fighter from the Norwegian Resistance in the World War II. In the film adaptation, Kehaar was supplied with a memorably pompous East-European accent by Zero Mostel. In the television series, Kehaar is voiced by English comedian Rik Mayall.

(The bird-related information for this post was mainly drawn from the excellent Wild London website.)

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