Gulls 3

Great Black-backed GullFor 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 melanocephalus 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.

Gulls 2

Comparing English and scientific names can be confusing in gull species. The agreed classification for gulls at this point in time is to have four larger genera, and a set of smaller ones. The gulls that have been classified by the IOC on their World Bird List as non-single or non-dual genus species have been grouped into Chroicocephalus, Leucophaeus, Ichthyaetus and Larus.

Here is a list of generic and specific scientific names with their translations.

Chroicocephalus = coloured head; from Greek chroa = colour, and cephalus = head.

  • Slender-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus genei = Gené’s Gull – patronym for Italian naturalist Giuseppe Gené (1800–1847).
  • Bonaparte’s Gull – Chroicocephalus philadelphia = Philadelphia Gull – for Philadelphia, PA, USA.
  • Red-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus scopulinus = Cliff Gull – from Latin scopulus = cliff.
  • Silver Gull – Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae = Western-Australian Gull – name given to Western Australia by early Dutch explorers.
  • Black-billed Gull – Chroicocephalus bulleri = Buller’s Gull – patronym for New Zealand ornithologist Walter Lawry Buller (1838–1906).
  • Andean Gull – Chroicocephalus serranus = Mountain Gull – from Portuguese serra = mountain (range).
  • Brown-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus = from Latin brunneus = brown, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Brown-hooded Gull – Chroicocephalus maculipennis = Spotted-winged Gull – from Latin macula = spot and penna = wing.
  • Black-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus ridibundus = Laughing Gull – from Latin ridere = to laugh.
  • Grey-headed Gull – Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus = from supposedly fake Latin cirrhus following Greek kirrhos = grey, and Greek kephalos = head.
  • Hartlaub’s Gull – Chroicocephalus hartlaubii = patronym for German ornithologist Karl Johann Gustav Hartlaub (1814–1900).
  • Saunders’s Gull – Chroicocephalus saundersi = patronym for British ornithologist Howard Saunders (1835–1907), an authority on gulls.

Leucophaeus = brown and white – from Greek leucos = white and phaios = dusky.

  • Dolphin Gull – Leucophaeus scoresbii = Scorebi’s Gull – patronym for English Arctic scientist William Scoresby (1789–1857).
  • Lava Gull – Leucophaeus fuliginosus = Sooty Gull – from Latin fuligo = sooty.
  • Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla = Black-tailed Gull – from Latin ater = black and cilla = tail.
  • Franklin’s Gull – Leucophaeus pipixcan = pipixcan seems to be an Aztec word of unknown meaning.
  • Grey Gull – Leucophaeus modestus = Plain Gull – from Latin modestus = plain, modest.

Ichthyaetus = after syn. Larus ichthyaetus, Pallas’s Gull – from Greek ichthys fish and aetos eagle.

  • Relict Gull – Ichthyaetus relictus = from Latin relictus = relict.
  • Audouin’s Gull – Ichthyaetus audouinii = patronym for French naturalist Jean Victoire Audouin (1797–1841).
  • Mediterranean Gull – Ichthyaetus melanocephalus = Black-headed Gull – from Greek melas = black and kephalos = head.
  • Pallas’s Gull – Ichthyaetus ichthyaetus = Fish-eagle Gull – from Greek ichthys = fish and aetos = eagle.
  • White-eyed Gull – Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus = from Greek leukos = white and ophthalmos = eye.
  • Sooty Gull – Ichthyaetus hemprichii = Hemprich’s Gull – patronym for German naturalist Friedrich Wilhelm Hemprich (1796–1825).

Larus = from Greek laros = gull or other seabird.

Herring Gull

  • Pacific Gull – Larus pacificus = for Pacific Ocean.
  • Belcher’s Gull – Larus belcheri = patronym for British naval explorer Edward Belcher (1799–1877).
  • Olrog’s Gull – Larus atlanticus = for Atlantic Ocean.
  • Black-tailed Gull – Larus crassirostris = Thick-billed Gull – from Latin crassus = thick or heavy, and rostrum = bill.
  • Heermann’s Gull – Larus heermanni = patronym for US field naturalist Adolphus Lewis Heermann (1827–1865).
  • Mew Gull – Larus canus = Grey Gull – from Latin canus = grey.
  • Ring-billed Gull – Larus delawarensis = for Delaware River, USA.
  • California Gull – Larus californicus = for California, USA.
  • Great Black-backed Gull – Larus marinus = Sea Gull – from Latin mare = sea.
  • Kelp Gull – Larus dominicanus = Dominican Gull – for black and white habits or robes of the Dominican Order.
  • Glaucous-winged Gull – Larus glaucescens = Blue-grey Gull – from Latin glaucescens = somewhat glaucous, bluish-grey.
  • Western Gull – Larus occidentalis = from Latin occidens = west.
  • Yellow-footed Gull – Larus livens = Bluish Gull – from Latin livens = bluish.
  • Glaucous Gull – Larus hyperboreus = Northern Gull – from Latin hyperboreus after Greek hyperborea = northern.
  • Iceland Gull – Larus glaucoides = Glaucus-like Gull – from Larus glaucus (syn. Larus hyperboreus = Glaucous Gull) and Greek oides = resembling.
  • Thayer’s Gull – Larus thayeri = patronym for US ornithologist John Eliot Thayer (1862–1933).
  • European Herring Gull – Larus argentatus = Silver Gull – from Latin argentatus = ornamented with silver.
  • American Herring Gull – Larus smithsonianus = patronym for British mineralogist and chemist James Smithson (1765–1829).
  • Vega Gull – Larus vegae = named for exploration vessel Vega used by Finnish Artcic explorer Nils Adolf Erik Nordenskjøld (1832–1901).
  • Caspian Gull – Larus cachinnans = Laughing Gull – from Latin cachinnare = laughing loudly.
  • Yellow-legged Gull – Larus michahellis = misspelling of michahelles, patronym for German zoologist Karl Michahelles (1807–1834)
  • Armenian Gull – Larus armenicus = for Armenia.
  • Slaty-backed Gull – Larus schistisagus = from Latin schistus = slate, and sagus = cloak.
  • Lesser Black-backed Gull = Larus fuscus = Dark Gull – from Latin fuscus = dark, swarthy.

Gulls 1

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.

KittiwakeRissa 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.