Of the 54 gull species on the IOC world list, 24 are Larus gulls, 12 are Chroicocephalus, 5 Leucophaeus, 6 Ichthyaetus; the remaining 7 are single or dual species genera. The latter’s names are not always what they make out to be.
Pagophila eburnea = sea-ice loving ivory-coloured bird (Ivory Gull)
Generally, this gull is graced with the adjectives ivory (English, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese), white (French), or ice (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Icelandic). It was first described as Larus Eburneus by British explorer Constantine Phipps in his 1774 A Voyage towards the North Pole. Subsequently, German naturalist Johann Jacob Kaup separated Ivory Gull from Larus and placed it in the monotypic genus Pagophila.
Xema sabini = Xema is a made-up name, sabini is a patronym (Sabine’s Gull)
Irish scientist Edward Sabine is often honored in this gull’s name (Norwegian, Czech, French, Spanish). Other European languages seem to refer to the forked tail and (more general) tern-like characteristics (Finnish, German, Dutch, Icelandic). Mysteriously elusive is the Polish ‘mewa obrożna’, plover gull.
Creagrus furcatus = hooked fork bird (Swallow-tailed Gull)
In most languages, reference is made in the name to the forked or scissor-like or swallow-like tail. One, rather obscure, exception is the Finnish ‘yölokki’, night gull.
Rissa tridactyla = three-toed kittiwake (Black-legged Kittiwake)
Famous for its three toes, it is thus named three-toed gull or three-toed kittiwake, apart from in Nordic languages (sans Swedish):
- Icelandic: rita = onomatopœia? (the origin of the scientific genus);
- Danish: ride = from Icelandic rita;
- Faroese: rita = from Icelandic rita;
- Norwegian: krykkje = onomatopœia?
- Finnish: pikkukajava = little kittiwake (kajava is also an old Finnish word for gull);
- North Sami: skierru = onomatopœia?
Rissa brevirostris = short-billed kittiwake (Red-legged Kittiwake)
Spanish and West Slavic languages follow the scientific (short-billed gull: gaviota piquicorta – ES; racek krátkozobý – CS), but it is generally referred to as red-legged gull/kittiwake, except e.g. in Swedish (Beringmås = Bering gull), German (Klippenmöwe = cliff gull), French (mouette des brumes = misty gull).
Hydrocoloeus minutus = small web-footed water bird (Little Gull)
It doesn’t look like any language refers to the webbed features of the Little Gull’s feet – generally, the adjective to ‘gull’ refers to ‘little’ or ‘least’ or ‘pygmy’, as in minutus.
Rhodostethia rosea = rose-breasted bird (Ross’s Gull)
The scientific name is essentially a partial tautology, a combination of the Greek rhodon, rose (with stēthos breast), and the Latin rosea, rose-coloured. Incidentally, the patronym is only used in English and Dutch, other languages follow the scientific and refer to colour. It was Scottish ornithologist William MacGillivray who first described this gull as Larus roseus in 1824. MacGillivray was very interested in taxonomy and the distinctions between species, and assigned this gull to its own monotypic genus Rhodostethia in 1842. James Clark Ross was an explorer of both the Arctic and the Antarctic and has had Ross Seal named after him as well.