Which species of large Atlantic gull is sometimes nicknamed the “minister” or “coffin-bearer”, presumably because of the color of its plumage?
We great black-backed gulls are the largest gull you will ever see, slow and heavy in flight and often hunched up and threatening on the ground. Expect to see us individually or in small colonies along the northern shorelines of the North Atlantic and adjacent seas, both in Europe and North America. Our length is approximately 30 inches (75cm) after we have reached the adult stage (we take 4 years for that to happen), and we can weigh up to 5 lbs. (2kg). We have a large, yellow-colored, powerful beak (with an orange-red spot on the lower mandible), pinkish legs, yellowish eyes and distinctive black coloration on our upper wings. Otherwise, we are white across the head, neck and underparts.
You will be excused if you confuse us with our cousin, the lesser black-backed gull. Although it is smaller and has a slate-grey back with black wing tips, it is easy to confuse the species with us when we are not around for comparison. There is also the belligerent herring gull which is also smaller than we are but has pale silver-grey plumage on its back.
There are around 20,000 pairs of great black-backed gulls that breed along the coasts of the UK, although our population rises during winter when we are joined by migrating birds from the north of Europe looking for open water. Many of us local birds disperse at that time of year and travel inland to landfills and reservoirs, although we still prefer to stay close to the coast. The European number of our species is around 125,000 pairs, and worldwide estimates are about 300,000 to 400,000. There has been a slight decline in our numbers in the UK and thus we have been added to that country’s “amber” conservation list.
We are not timid, and dominate other species of gull when foraging for food. Our preference is for fish, shellfish and molluscs but we’ll eat anything, including carrion and chasing after the waste from fishing boats out at sea. We catch rats, mice and rabbits, take other birds’ chicks from nests, seize and eat weaker, more defenseless birds like migrating passerines, waterfowl, puffins, guillemots and manx shearwaters; we will harry our cousins to steal their food, and hunch down and drill into the eggs of alternative species. There are even rumors that we attack lambs.
We are also formidable when it comes to repelling predators like foxes and other gulls that get too close to our several greenish mottled eggs or young juveniles. We arch our back and lean forward before rushing the opponent, to either chase it away or fight with it vigorously. We have relatively few predators except for the white-tailed eagle, sharks and whales.
Our preference is to mate for life but we’ll divorce if we cannot produce healthy chicks. If you listen, you will hear our hoarse trumpeting cry. Please regard us as king among all other gulls.