Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?

Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?

I never saw great black-backed gulls around the farm during the 1950s, and at the time, only a few wintered around York.  They are the largest gull in the world, measuring 30 inches (75cm) in length. By comparison, an adult golden eagle ranges in size from 27 to 33 inches (70 to 84 cm). The gull was a regular sighting of mine at Spurn Point Bird Observatory during the 1960s where, on occasion, I would watch them attack other birds. They are aggressive. The prey they killed included smaller gulls, terns and ducks, as well as songbirds that they swallowed immediately they were caught. They can even eat a puffin whole. Once I watched a great black-backed gull chase a tern out at sea ; it attacked on the wing, repeatedly jabbing at its prey, and eventually exhausted the tern  which collapsed into the sea where it was eaten.  They also take fish, shellfish and molluscs, rob other birds of their eggs and catch small rodents such as mice, rats and rabbits.

It is nicknamed  “minister-of-the-sea”, presumably because of its contrasting black back, and also “coffin-bearer” or “coffin-carrier” because of its crisp black and white appearance. In some places, it is known as the “turkey gull” because of its large size. Inland,  you typically see them scavenging wherever there is human and natural waste.

You can distinguish the species by its size, but also by the black coloration on its upper wings, a large yellow-colored powerful beak (with an orange-red spot on the lower mandible), pinkish legs and yellowish eyes.

It is a bird whose fortunes have been very much linked to human activity through the decades. Long ago the species was harvested for its feathers that were used in the hat-making trade, as well as for its eggs by egg collectors. However, as these practices ended,  its population rebounded and the bird adapted to human activity and urban environments. It also benefited from an increase in fishing and processing plants. However, in recent times this good fortune has begun to reverse due to changes in waste management and reductions in fishing. Today, about 35,000 birds breed in the UK and their numbers increase to around 75,000 during winter when they are joined by birds from the north. The species is on the amber watch list of threatened species in Britain.

There are an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 birds worldwide.  

Once I moved to California, I was no longer able to see these hunter, scavenging birds. In North America they are restricted to the Atlantic coast and are rarely seen inland.  The gulls are present all year round in most parts of their breeding range, which extends from Labrador, Newfoundland, down to North Carolina, but some birds do withdraw in winter to move as far south as Florida and can be seen on beaches and near fishing piers. 

In California, our largest gull is the slightly smaller glaucous gull (27 inches/68 cm in length), the second largest gull in the world, but there is nothing as fierce and aggressive as the great black-backed species. The challenge for birdwatchers in California is to distinguish among the multiple varieties of gull that show up along the west coast (for example, the California gull, western gull, Heemann’s gull, and the herring gull).

The future of the great black-backed gulls appears to rely heavily  on their relationship with humans.



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