The flying is exciting. And there aren’t too many predators above the sea! But if we’re still disappearing, is it all fun and games being a kittiwake? Well, it is usually.
1) Our roost rules
Even our bog-standard cliff cups have amazing sea views, but we also bed down on super cool snow banks, glittering icebergs, towering skyscrapers and spooky shipwrecks, as long as they’re within 20km of the sea. We love the Old Salt so much we don’t always leave it to drink either!
2) We can make homemade fresh water
If we drink seawater, we can squeeze out double the salt afterwards – from above our eyes, before you ask. So our bodies keep the drinkable stuff behind. Nifty, eh? Here’s another small thing that makes a big difference:
3) Little legs beat huge winds
Black or red, our legs are short, so we have what humans call a “low centre of gravity”. Whatever that is, it means we can take a hammering from massive ocean gales with hardly any effort. We save that for our menu choice.
4) We’re a classy bird
We don’t stoop to dip-diving like some other gulls. If we do eat leftovers, it’s the classy, fishing trawler type, and we eat the fish around sewage, not the actual stuff. Because, yuck. But people tend to get the wrong idea about us…
5) We have a disappointing name
Humans think our name sounds cute. Then they see us and go “oh, you’re just seagulls”.
I’m not sure which is worse, that, or being called a “tickleass” in Newfoundland. (Really?!) But to be fair, I sometimes feel like calling us names, because we’re not always up to the job.
6) We’re a seabird that isn’t great on the sea
What kind of “seabird” can only dive up to ½ metre? Our stupid kind, that’s who. So if our sandeel or other fishy prey gets clever, or dives deeper because of the weather, we’re a bit stuffed. We don’t really help ourselves, either.
7) We put too much effort into daft things
I’d love to meet the ancestor who said “hey, let’s fly 60km out to sea to catch sandeels, even though there are hardly any here, and the terns are raking them in much closer to shore. Oh, and let’s do this during breeding season, when we have even less time to feed”. Mind you, maybe there wasn’t one and it’s a recent change, because it’s not always our fault.
8) Climate change. Tankers.
We sort of rely on one hefty, central food supply, so if the sea is getting warmer or the weather shifts, there won’t be as much in the usual places. And then we have the odd oil spill messing everything up. It’s fun having black markings as a teen, but, you know, not the type that can kill us, and while we want to be a grown-up grey eventually, we want to be the alive kind.
We can’t exactly fly away from our problems, but we’d probably cause more for humans if we stooped to dip-diving and chip-theft. And who would want that?
Latin: Rissa tridactyla (black-legged) / Rissa brevirostris (red-legged)
What? Pretty seagull with black or red legs.
Where? Black-legged kittiwake: coastal cliffs in Europe, North America, Asia, and west Africa. The red-legged kittiwake is restricted to the shores of the Bering Sea.
How big? Wingspan of 1.1 metre / 3.7 feet.
Endangered? Both species are considered Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, due to a drop in prey (black-legged), a restricted range (red-legged), and the joys of climate change (both).
Probable motto: I’m the seagull that was brought up properly.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Despite being seabirds, kittiwakes can’t dive very deep to catch their prey, so if currents, weather, or oil spills churn or push fish further away, it can cause trouble. This is on top of competition for food in some areas, as well as copping it as bycatch. Their numbers have been dropping for several years as a result.
The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has several coastal campaigns such as “Coasts in Crisis” and “Sealife Guardians”, and Birdlife International has its own projects as well as links to other societies working to protect sea birds.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
BirdLife International. 2018. “Rissa brevirostris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2018: e.T22694502A132557429.
BirdLife International. 2018. “Rissa tridactyla. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2018: e.T22694497A132556442.
Coulson, John. 2011. “The Kittiwake“. T & AD Poyser.
2017. “Productivity of the Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla required to maintain numbers“. Bird Study 64(1): 84-89.
Erikstad, Kjell Einar et al. 1988. “Duration of shipfollowing by kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla in the Barents Sea“. Polar Research 6(2): 191-194.
“Kittiwake“. No date. RSPB.org.
“Kittiwake“. No date. The Wildlife Trusts.
Labansens, Aili Lage et al. 2010. “Status of the black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) breeding population in Greenland, 2008“. Polar Research 29(3): 391-403.
Pinder, J.M. 1989. “Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla inland in Yorkshire 1981–1985“. Ringing & Migration 10(2):113-118.
Robertson, Gail S. et al. 2015. “Parental resource allocation among offspring varies with increasing brood age in Black-legged Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla”. Bird Study 62(3): 303-314.
Roof, Jennifer. No date. “Rissa tridactyla“. Animal Diversity Web.
Sweet, N. A. 2008. “Rissa tridactyla Black-legged kittiwake“. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews. Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom.
Featured image credit: “Black-legged kittiwake” by Tom Benson