For non-birders, the fact that there is no such a bird as a sea-gull is sometimes hard to comprehend. Looking at the scientific names, Sea Gull is in fact Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus, from Latin mare = sea). However, proper sea-gulls are quite possibly just Sabine’s Gull and Black-legged Kittiwake, as they tend to be truly pelagic during the non-breeding season.
There is some fun to be had with gull names. Take, for instance, the next quartet of misnomers: Mediterranean Gull, Black-headed Gull, Laughing Gull and Black-tailed Gull.
The specific epithet of Mediterranean Gull (Ichthyaetus melanocephalus) refers to its black head (from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head), which would make it, literally, Black-headed Gull. At some point in the second half of the twentieth century the then-known Mediterranean Black-headed Gull had its ‘black-headed’ adjective dropped to avoid confusion with ‘Common’ Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus). The latter’s scientific epithet (ridibundus) translates, generally, as ‘laughing’, i.e. Laughing Gull. However, Laughing Gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) is a locally common New World species, whose scientific name refers not to laughing but to a black tail (from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail). Black-tailed Gull (Larus crassirostris), on the other hand, is a mainly Pacific species with a black tail in adult plumage; crassirostris, however, stems from Latin crassus (thick or heavy) and rostrum (bill), which would make this Thick-billed Gull.
Looking at the names of two of these species in a bit more detail, a few surprises appear.
Black-tailed Gull was first described by French ornithologist Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot in 1818 as Larus crassirostris (Thick-billed Gull) and Goéland de Naugasaki (Nagasaki Gull) in French. Ten or 20 years later, it was Dutch zoologist Coenraad Jacob Temminck who named this gull Larus melanurus and Mouette queue noir (Black-tailed Gull) without any reference to Vieillot. Long known as Temminck’s Gull, it is from his description that the English name of Black-tailed Gull stems. A second name is widespread, Japanese Gull, although, perhaps not surpisingly, not in Japan.
- Black-tailed Gull = Gaviota Colinegra (ES), Goéland à queue noire (FR), Gabbiano codanera (IT), Juodauodegis kiras (LT), Zwartstaartmeeuw (NL), Чайка чернохвостая (RU), Čajka čiernochvostá (SK), Svartstjärtad mås (SV), นกนางนวลหางดำ (TH), Mòng bể đuôi đen (VI), 黑尾鸥 (ZH).
- Japanese Gull = Racek japonský (CS), Japanmåge (DA), Japanmöwe (DE), Jaapani kajakas (ET), Japaninlokki (FI), Japanmåke (NO), Mewa japońska (PL).
- Sea Cat = ウミネコ (JA).
The description of Mediterranean Gull by Temminck can be found in his Manuel d’ornithologie as Larus melancephalus and Mouette à capuchon noir, from a bird collected by Austrian naturalist Johann Natterer (who, like Temminck, has been blessed by various patronyms, such as Natterer’s Slaty Antshrike – Thamnophilus stictocephalus – and, more widely known, Natterer’s Bat – Myotis nattereri). Mediterranean Gull is mainly known around the Western Palearctic as Black-headed Gull, although Black-Sea Gull seems to be quite widespread – but not so much in languages around the Black Sea. It is known as Mediterranean Gull in Turkish, Ukranian and Welsh.
- Mediterranean Gull = Gwylan Mor-y-Canoldir (CY), Akdeniz Martısı (TR), Мартин середземноморський (UK).
- Black-headed Gull = Чорнагаловая чайка (BE), Малка черноглава чайка (BG), Racek černohlavý (CS), Sorthovedet måge (DA), Schwarzkopfmöwe (DE), Μαυροκέφαλος Γλάρος (EL),
Gaviota Cabecinegra (ES), Mouette mélanocéphale (FR), שחף שחור-ראש (HE), Crnoglavi galeb (crnoglavi also means ‘pied’) (HR), Juodagalvis kiras (LT), Melngalvas kaija (LV), Zwartkopmeeuw (NL), Mewa czarnogłowa (PL), Чайка черноголовая (RU), Pulëbardha kokëzezë (SQ).
- Black Sea Gull = Mustanmerenlokki (FI), Svartehavsmåke (NO), Gaivota-de-cabeça-preta (PT), Čajka čiernohlavá (SK), Svarthuvad mås (SV).
There are quite a few unique names for Mediterranean Gull:
- Arabic: المتوسط, نورس البحر = Common Gull;
- Estonian: Karbuskajakas = Hooded Gull;
- Hungarian: Szerecsensirály = Saracen Gull;
- Icelandic: Lónamáfur = Lagoon Gull;
- Italian: Gabbiano corallino = Coral Gull, after its bill colour.
Black-headed Gull and Laughing Gull will be dealt with another time.