The Vikings are invading!
Okay, not really. But the lesser black-backed gull, once a very rare stray to North America, has expanded greatly in numbers and distribution across the continent during the past 100 or so years. That’s according to the National Audubon Society.
And ornithologists believe most of these birds are coming from Iceland.
Now, I must admit that I’d never observed one of these gulls until last winter, when I saw quite a few in the Oklahoma City area. So the first thing I did was research them as much as possible.
Lesser black-backed gulls are common across Europe, and they have expanded westward.
The National Audubon Society indicates the increase of these birds in the United States is “undoubtedly” related to a growing population of the species in Iceland. Lesser black-backed gulls began nesting in Iceland in the 1920s and are now present by the thousands.
The bird recently began nesting in Greenland but has yet to nest in North America, where it is only a winter visitor. The Audubon Society says it is a fairly common visitor to the East Coast and west to the Great Lakes, but it is a less common visitor inland.
Last winter, I saw reports of this large gull at Lake Texoma and at lakes in and around Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Now, my assumption is that the lesser black-backed gull is so named as there is a great black-backed gull, which is larger. I can’t confirm that, but it seems logical.
The great back-backed is the largest gull in the world and is an inhabitant of the northeastern United States.
I’m starting with the bird’s diet, as it may be surprising to some.
What does it eat? Just about everything. Its main diet consists of fish, insects, seeds, worms, eggs, carrion, garbage and even other birds.
While searching for information about this gull, I noticed that there are many videos of lesser black-backed gulls catching, killing and eating other birds, including pigeons, smaller gulls, ducklings and goslings.
It’s all quite brutal, but nature often is.
In the case of the pigeons, the gulls capture and take the smaller birds to the water, where the gull has the advantage. It would then either drown them or sever their spines before eating them. Yikes!
The lesser black-backed gull is a big bird, larger than an American crow. They range in length from 20 to 25 inches and have a wingspan of about 4 to 5 feet, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
They are dark gray on their backs and backs of their wings. The term “black-backed” comes from the fact that there are many subspecies, some of which have very dark backs. However, the vast majority of birds that visit North America appear similar to the birds in my photos — with dark gray backs.
They have all white heads during the breeding season, but winter birds have grayish spots and streaks on the necks and heads.
They have a dark, smudgy patch around the eye (see photo) and a red spot on the lower mandible of the beak. Legs of adults are yellow or yellowish.
It is similar in appearance to the herring gull. However, it is slightly smaller than the herring gull. Also, its back is darker than the herring’s, which is a lighter gray.
Juveniles are mottled in brown colors and have black beaks, and their legs are paler yellow than adults.
Beaches, coasts, lakes and lake edges, bays and garbage dumps.
Is an uncommon visitor from about Colorado and states eastward.
Odds and ends
• According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest known lesser black-backed gull was a little over nine years old after it was identified by a band placed around its leg when young.
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.