Black-billed gulls (by Abby McBride)

Just a Seagull? Nope

There’s no such thing as a seagull, according to certain pedantsHow can that be?

Because it’s a gull—actually, one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world, oceanic and otherwise. They range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior. Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.

So…what’s wrong with calling a sea-affiliated gull a seagull? Sigh. Nothing, I guess. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings. In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?

Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.

Red-billed gull (Larus novaehollandiae)

The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude out of proportion with its size.

Black-billed gull (Larus bulleri)

The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for the misunderstood black-billed gull in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about this gull in my next story.

Southern black-backed gull (Larus dominicanus)

The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common in conjunction with human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is…

In the next episode I’ll take you to a special gull colony I stumbled on. Meanwhile, remember: good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.

Abby McBride (Photo: Edin Whitehead)
Photo by Edin Whitehead



Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Sketch biologist Abby McBride once harbored aspirations of being a Victorian-era naturalist explorer. Adapting her career goals to the 21st century, she now travels globally to sketch wildlife and write multimedia stories about science and conservation. As a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow in New Zealand, home to the most diverse and endangered seabirds in the world, Abby is reporting on extraordinary efforts to reverse centuries of human-caused harm to penguins, prions, storm-petrels, shearwaters, shags, gulls, gannets, mollymawks, and more. Through art and digital media she aims to convey a sense of the beauty, fascination, and importance of seabirds, which are quickly disappearing from seas and shores worldwide. Abby is based on the Maine coast and has degrees in biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Follow @sketchbiologist on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (or get email updates).
  • Sam Keck Scott

    Wonderful post, Abby. One of your dandiest yet!

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