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Black-legged Kittiwake

Although the name might not give it away, this seabird belongs to the gull family.

The Black-legged Kittiwake, like many seabirds but unlike most other gulls, nests on narrow ledges of vertical sea cliffs. Black-legged Kittiwakes do not gather at landfills to forage the way many other gulls species do, but instead eat mostly marine fish. Commercial fishing and ocean cycles can affect the availability of their food.

Black-legged Kittiwakes do not breed until age three or four for females, and age four or five for males. Because of the precarious nature of their nest sites, kittiwake chicks often fall out of their nests prematurely. For birds breeding far north, a late ice breakup in the spring can reduce the amount of food available and lead to complete nesting failures.


Description of the Black-legged Kittiwake


Black-legged Kittiwake

Photograph © Glenn Bartley


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter adults have a black smudge on the back of their heads.


Juveniles have more black in the wings, a black tail band, a black collar, and a black bill.


Open ocean.



Black-legged Kittiwake


Forages in flight by dipping to the water’s surface, or by swimming.

Fun Facts

Black-legged Kittiwakes often feed in flocks wherever prey are located and available.

Black-legged Kittiwakes will forage at night around lighted fishing boats.


A series of calls that sound like “kittiwake”.


Similar Species

The Red-legged Kittiwake has red legs.



The nest is placed on a cliff ledge and is made of mud and plant material.

Number: 1-3.
Color: Olive or tan with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 25-28 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) 34-58 days after hatching.


Bent Life History of the Black-legged Kittiwake

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Black-legged Kittiwake – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



now Black-legged Kittiwake

The hardy kittiwake has been well named, on the New England coast, the “frost gull” or the “winter gull,” for its arrival seems to indicate the coming of hard frosts and the beginning of real winter. It seems to bring with it the first cold breath of ice and snow from the rugged Arctic coasts where it makes its summer home. This species is always associated in my mind with icebergs and the great Greenland ice packs, which drift southward with the Arctic current, and in its summer home, with the dark, frowning cliffs of the frozen north, which tower for hundreds of feet above the stormy ice-bound seas until lost to sight in shrouds of mist and fog, where the “frost gulls” find a safe retreat in which to rear their hardy offspring.

Spring: According to Hagerup (1891) the kittiwakes arrive in Greenland early in April:

From their arrival till the middle of May they keep together in one or more large flocks, and are then very timid and noisy. This is, perhaps, because the fjord is to a great extent covered with Ice, so that their nesting ground lies 8 to 10 miles from open water. On clear days in April a flock of some 2,000 may be seen rising to a great height, say 3,000 and to 4,000 feet, sometimes going out of sight, so that one can only hear their screeching as they rapidly wheel about. They are then wont to make an excursion inland, above the ice, toward their breeding place. On returning they descend somewhat more scattered; but at once, on reaching the water, they gather close together. These exercises they often go through many times a day. In May they assemble in smaller flocks and are less shy. About 2,000 lay their eggs on the front of a perpendicular cliff situated at the head of the fjord. The lowest nests may easily be reached from a boat; the highest are about 150 feet above the sea. The eggs are laid chiefly during the first 10 days of June, and the young fly from their nests about the middle of August. (The earliest date on which I have seen a young bird Is the 7th of August.) After that they generally go about in small flocks or singly and keep comparatively silent. On a few occasions only, on August afternoons, I have seen large flocks of 500 to 1,000 individuals rise to a great height and fly toward the ocean.

Courtship: Mr. Edmund Selous (1905) says, in referring to the courtship of the kittiwake, that the inside of the mouth is of “a fine rich red, or orange red color,” and that “both sexes open their bills widely and crane about, with their heads turned toward each other, whilst at the same time uttering their shrieking, clamorous cry. The motion, however, is often continued after the cry has ceased, and this we might expect if the birds took any pleasure in the brilliant gleam of color which each presents to and, as it were, flashes about in front of the other.”:

Mr. W. Elmer Ekblaw, in his Greenland notes, says:

About June 10 the kittiwake begins mating. The rivalry for mates and nests Is keen, and the struggles over the nests are bitter and prolonged. I watched two birds fight for a nest for over an hour. When one alighted upon the nest he turned at once with open bill and angry scream to meet the rival which he expected to attack him at once. Usually the other claimant for the nest was quick in his attempt to eject the first. With bills locked like the jaws of fighting bull terriers, they wrestled with each other, shaking and tugging and pulling fiercely until they fell off the ledge and fluttered to the Ice still In death grip. Once on the Ice they soon ceased their combat, and separated, both angrily screaming. The contest was many times repeated.

Nesting: The kittiwake is decidedly an oceanic gull, being seldom seen inland, except as a wanderer on migrations, and breeding on the rocky cliffs and crags of our Arctic coasts exposed to all the fury of ocean storms in which it seems to delight. On the Greenland coast most of the large breeding colonies are on the high cliffs near the heads of deep fjords, but farther south the preference seems to be for lofty rocky islands.

My first intimate study of the nesting habits of the Atlantic kittiwake was made on the famous Bird Rocks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in 1904, one of the southernmost outposts of its breeding range. We landed here in a small boat, late in the evening of June 23, under rather exciting circumstances. As the great cliffs towered above us in the moonlight we saw a lantern coming down the ladder to show us where to land and we ran in among the breakers. There was a crash which brought us to our feet as we struck an unseen rock; but the next wave carried us over it and landed us among the rocks and flying spray. We were overboard in an instant, struggling in the surf up to our waists, for the boat was rapidly filling, as wave after wave broke over us. A few moments of rapid work served to unload our baggage and attach a stout line to the boat, the signal was passed aloft and the powerful steam winch above landed her high and dry. After exchanging hearty greetings with our genial host, Captain Bourque, we enjoyed the novel experience of being hoisted up in a crate to the top of the cliff, over 100 feet high. It was certainly a new and interesting sensation to feel ourselves slowly rising in the darkness up the face of these somber cliffs, with the surf thundering on the rocks below us and with a cloud of screaming seabirds hovering about us, barely discernible in the moonlight, like a swarm of ghostly bats whose slumber had been disturbed and who were protesting at our rude intrusion.

On the following day the wind was blowing a gale and clouds of sea birds were drifting about the rock in a bewildering maze, 10,000 of them in all. There were great white gannets sailing on long powerful wings, tipped with black; clouds of snowy kittiwakes hovering in the air; hundreds of swift-winged murres and razor-billed auks darting out from the cliffs; and quaint little parties of curious puffins perched on the rocks. There was a constant babel of voices, the mingled cries of the varied throngs; deep, guttural croaks and hoarse grunts from the gannets; a variety of soft purring notes from the murres; and sharp, piercing cries from the active kittiwakes distinctly pronouncing the three syllables for which they are named, as if beseeching us to “keep away” from their precious nests.

For a more intimate study of their nesting habits we were lowered down the face of the cliff in a crate, dangling at the end of a long rope and whirling helplessly about in space, but within a few feet of the confiding, gentle birds on their nests. They were so accustomed to the intimacy of man that it was an easy matter to study and photograph the dainty creatures at short range. Their nests were scattered all over the perpendicular face of the cliff, on every available little shelf. I was surprised to see how small and narrow a ledge could support a nest in safety. The nests were firmly and well built of seaweeds, grasses, and mosses, and were securely plastered on to the rock; apparently they were made of wet seaweed which adhered firmly to the rock as it dried; evidently the nests had been used for successive seasons, fresh material being added each year. They were deeply cupped and well built up on the outer sides, so as to form safe cradles for the young. Incubation was far advanced at this date (June 24), and many of the eggs had hatched. The nests must, indeed, be well built to hold the weight of two lusty young and the brooding parent in such precarious situations. Mr. Ora W. Knight (1908) gives the dimensions of a nest found on Baccalieu Island, Newfoundland. “Its diameter at base was 1 foot, and at top 8 inches; interior diameter, 6 inches; and depth, 2 inches.”:

Eggs: The kittiwake is said to lay as many as four or five eggs, but I believe that two is the usual number; that three eggs are rarely laid; and that larger numbers are very unusual. I am quite sure that more than 90 per cent of the nests that I have seen have held only two eggs. Often only a single egg is hatched. The eggs vary in shape from somewhat pointed ovate to short ovate, rarely elongate ovate; the shell is thin and smooth, but without much lustre. The ground color varies from “pinkish buff” or “olive buff” to “cartridge buff,” ” pale olive buff,” or bluish white. The spots are irregular in arrangement, size, and shape; most eggs have underlying spots or blotches of “light Quaker drab” or “light mouse gray”; these are either overlaid or mixed with darker spots, blotches, or scrawls of ” clay color,” “snuff brown,” “tawny olive,” “Vandyke brown, or “sepia” of various shades. The measurements of 41 eggs in various collections average 56.1 by 40.8 milli meters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 62.5 by 42.5, 58 by 43.5, 53 by 39 and 55 by 37.5 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be 26 days. Probably both sexes incubate, as both parents are usually together at the nest and both are devoted to the young. The young remain in the nest, where they are fed by their parents, until they are fully fledged. The narrow confines of the usual nest, on its small shelf of rock, permit no wandering habits, as common among other gulls. Any attempt to stray from the nest would usually result in a disastrous fall from a dizzy height to dangerous rocks or surf below; so the young birds must of necessity stay in the nest until able to fly. Many such fatal accidents probably occur, which serve to keep in check the increase of the species, which is otherwise secure from molestation on its nesting grounds.

On North Bird Rock, where many of the nests are on the lower ledges, I noticed on July 24, 1915, that many of the nearly fledged young had been able to crawl or jump out of the nests and were wandering about over the flat rocks below the cliffs, though they were not able to fly. Many of the older young were already on the wing at this date and a few were still in the nests.

Plumages: The newly hatched young is covered with long, soft, glossy down, which is white and spotless, but tinged basally with yellowish gray and buffy on the back and thighs, and tipped with dusky, giving it a grizzly appearance, quite unlike other young gulls. The young bird grows rapidly and soon begins to assume the first winter plumage, which appears first on the scapulars, then on the wings, back, and neck. There is no strictly juvenal plumage in this species. In the first winter plumage the bill is black; there is a blackish patch on the hind neck; the lesser wing-coverts and sometimes the greater wing-coverts and scapulars are largely black; the tail has a broad black band at the tip; the dusky spots on the head, before and behind the eye, are darker than in adults. A partial molt occurs early in the spring, usually in February and March, but sometimes as early as December, in which most of the dusky feathers in the head are replaced by white or lighter colored feathers and the black lesser wing-coverts disappear. At the first postnuptial molt in August young birds become indistinguishable from adults when one year old, a complete molt producing the adult winter plumage. A partial prenuptial molt, involving the head, neck, and body feathers, produces the adult nuptial plumage with the pure white head and yellow bill. Adults have a complete molt in the summer, producing the well-known winter plumage.

Food: A flock of feeding kittiwakes is an animated and a pretty sight. During the latter part of the summer they assemble in enormous numbers in the numerous bays and “tickles” of the Labrador coast, and congregate about the fishing vessels to pick up the scraps that are thrown overboard. A school of small fry, swimming near the surface, soon attracts an interested throng of these little gulls which hover over them and scream excitedly as they gently swoop down with elevated wings to pick the small fish from the surface without wetting a feather. Although small fishes procured in this way constitute the principal food of the kittiwake, it also eats crustaceans, aquatic larva~, and other marine animals which it gleans from the water. It feeds to some extent along the beaches and on the bare sand flats at low tide, where it finds various small mollusks, crustaceans, and other marine invertebrates. Often large flocks are seen feeding in the flats. It is less of a scavenger than the larger gulls and less given to frequenting the inner harbors. It is said to drink salt water exclusively, being seldom seen inland. Mr. Brewster (1883) reports a captive kittiwake that refused fresh water and drank salt water eagerly.

Behavior: The flight of the kittiwake is buoyant, graceful, and easy. Audubon (1840) describes its movements, in his usual graphic style, as follows:

Bearing up against the heaviest gale, it passes from one trough of the sea to another as If anxious to rest for an instant under the lee of the billows; yet as these are seen to rear their curling crests, the gull is already several feet above them and preparing to plunge into the next hollow. While iii our harbor, and during fine weather, they seemed to play with their companions of other species. Now with a spiral curve they descend toward the water, support themselves by beats of their wings, decline their heads, and pick up a young herring or some bit of garbage, when away they fly, chased perhaps by several others anxious to rob them of the prize. Noon has arrived. High above the masthead of our largest man-of-war the kittiwakes float gracefully in wide circles until all, as if fatigued, sail downward again with common accord toward the transparent deep, and, alighting close to each other, seem to ride safely at anchor. There they now occupy themselves in cleaning and arranging their beautiful plumage.

It flies more swiftly than the larger gulls and with more rapid wing beats. It can be readily recognized by the flight, even at a long distance, by one who is familiar with it. Dr. Charles W. Townsend writes to me:

Although the flight of the kittiwake is characteristically graceful, rapid, and swallow like, with quick wing strokes, I have seen them get up from the surface of the water just in time to clear the bow of the advancing steamer and fly off with slow and heavy wing beats, as if loath to leave a good fishing ground. In the adult the black wing tips are short and cut squarely across, as if the wings were dipped in black. In the immature plumage it most closely resembles the young Bonaparte’s gull, but the black nuchal crescent and the black wing coverts are conspicuous, and there is more black on the primaries, in which the color pattern Is also different.

The ordinary cry of the kittiwake suggests its name, which it seems to pronounce quite distinctly. This is the soft and mellow note most often heard about its breeding grounds, but when much excited or alarmed, it indulges in loud, shrill, piercing screams, as it darts down upon the intruder. When hovering in large flocks over a school of fish or other tempting feast it becomes very noisy, uttering loud, harsh cries, somewhat resembling the notes of the gull-billed tern. Doctor Townsend adds the following notes:

Besides the cry, which recalls its name Kit-ti-wake, I have noted down the syllables Ka-ake; sharp and piercing Ki, Ki, KL; rapidly repeated and harsh rattling Kaa, Kaa, Kae, Kae, and Kaak Kaak.

The gentle kittiwake is a highly gregarious and sociable species. Among the various sea birds, with which it is intimately associated on its breeding grounds, it is a harmless and a friendly neighbor. It does not seem to molest the eggs or young of the other species at all and it has no enemies among them. At other seasons it is often persecuted by the jaegers, the relentless pursuers of all the smaller gulls and terns, the highway robbers of the northern seas. The worst enemy of the kittiwake is man. In winter, when these gulls are abundant on the New England coast, they are shot in large numbers. They are tame and unsuspicious, gathering, like terns, in large flocks over a fallen companion, making it easy for the gunner to kill as many as he chooses. They may easily be attracted about the fisherman’s boat by throwing overboard cod livers or other refuse, where they are easily shot and may often be caught on a baited hook. Their bodies are used for food or for bait and their plumage is, or was, sold for millinery purposes; but often they are killed in purely wanton sport. Macgillivray (1852) says of the way these birds have been killed on the British coast:

Parties are formed on our eastern coast for the sole purpose of shooting them; and I have seen a person station himself on the top of the kittiwake cliff of the Isle of May, and shoot incessantly for several hours, without so much as afterwards picking up a single individual of the many killed and maimed birds with which the smooth water was strewn beneath.

Fall: The fall migration starts early; that is, the birds move away from their breeding grounds early and begin to work down the coast in August and September. Dr. Charles XV. Townsend (1907) saw about 5,000 kittiwakes at the mouth of Hamilton Inlet, Labrador, on July 18, 1906. He describes their behavior as follows: At Hamilton Inlet thousands of kittiwakes covered the water, and as we steamed on they rose in bodies of 500 or more and whirled about like gusts of snow driven by the wind, their pure white plumage lit up by the rays of the setting sun. Silent for the most part, they occasionally emitted cries of kae kae, or ka-ake, and at times one could imagine the syllables of kittiwake. On our return trip we ran into a flock of nearly the same size near Cape Harrison. The appearance of a snowstorm here was more perfect, for there was a thick fog bank, on the edge of which the kittiwakes played. The sun shining on the birds before the fog shut them out ~~’as very striking. They were occasionally plunging for capelins, at times disappearing entirely under water with a splash. One could often be seen flying with a fish hanging by one end from its bill. A jaeger suddenly appeared on the scene, and the twisting and turning of pursuer and pursued was interesting to see. The kittlwake finally dropped his prey, and the Jaeger settled on the water to pick it up.

On my way south along the Labrador coast on August 21, 1912, I saw large numbers of old and young kittiwakes near Makkovik and Ragged Islands, far south of their breeding grounds. Mr. Lucien M. Turner says of their habits on the Labrador coast:

Scores and hundreds of the kittiwake gull were observed on the Labrador coast in the early part of July, 1S82. They were most numerous in the Arctic current bearing icebergs, on which these birds at times assembled In thousands as the mass of ice towered at times over 200 feet high and presented an area of over half a mile square on the top of It. Here the birds sat compactly, slowly moving to the southward; they probably congregated during these times after having gorged themselves with capelins and lance fishes to allow the process of digestion to be completed. A single rifle shot reverberating against the wall of ice or a bail projected in the midst of these birds was sufficient to startle the entire community into flight, and upon which they would lazily circle round and round the vessel or sway back and forth across her wake, always at a provoking distance, until one would be dropped while on wing with a rifle ball. The living birds wheeled over their dead companion In angry curiosity as they clamored their rattling cry.

Winter: The kittiwake does not become common on the Massachusetts coast until about the middle of October, after which it is common off our coasts all winter, where it is known as the “winter gull,” “frost gull,” or “pinny owl.” Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1905) says of its winter habits:

The kittiwake is an offshore gull, one that Is to be found especially about fishing vessels in winter, gleaning the waves for the refuse which is always to be found in the neighborhood of these boats. In my notes of a trip to Nova Scotia from Boston, in December, 1883, I have entered that they were very abundant everywhere off the coast. Off Rockport in winter, kittiwakes begin to be common 2 or 3 miles from land, and are generally abundant on the fishing grounds, S or 10 miles out. They may, however, be frequently seen from the shore, especially if the day be stormy and the shore an open one. They often visit the little harbor of Rockport with its wealth of fish gurry. They also fly occasionally over the beaches, and under these circumstances I have bad no difficulty in shooting them for specimens, as, unlike the herring gull, they do not hesitate to fly within gunshot. I have never seen them in the tidal estuaries.

Mr. Walter H. Rich has sent me the following notes on the behavior of the kittiwake or “winter bird,” as it is called, on Georges Banks:

As might be guessed from the name, it is during the coldest weather that this bird is most abundant, and at this season, so the writer was informed, not infrequently they became so tame as to perch in rows upon the main booms of the vessels on frosty mornings, awaiting their breakfasts.

The first arrivals (five birds) appeared on the morning of October 12, 1913. Every day following their arrival showed increasing numbers until in a fortnight there were always “hundreds,” and at times “thousands” would make but a moderate estimate of their flocks. My records for November 16 says, “winter birds in millions “perhaps an exaggeration, yet so it seemed. Scarcely a daylight hour after their arrival but was filled with their chattering squeal; scarcely a moment but saw them wheeling about the steamers, appearing just before sun up and standing by to give any needed assistance as long as the sun held above the western rim of the ocean.

The signal for hauling the net brought great activity among the flocks banked up on either side of the steamer’s path in 24-mile-long lines of white birds roosting upon the water. There were literally thousands of gulls that rose and drifted along over the swells, just keeping pace with the steamer’s slow progress. Other gulls there were, both brown plumaged and full plumaged ring-bill, herring gull, black-backed, and a few of the large white or pearly gulls, of species undetermined where they wheeled in a safe offing. But all these were at a disadvantage, both numerically and otherwise, with the kittiwakes, who stole from them and beat theta to every piece of liver and waste thrown overside. If the prize sinks the big gull has lost it; not so the little “winter bird,” who dives swiftly and gracefully from the wing and brings it up. This Is the only gull which the writer has ever seen to dive. Naturally their success makes them unpopular with the losers, who pursue and harry the kittiwake, but to little effect, since the small gull is too active to suffer much In these attempts at reprisal.

In fair weather during midday the gulls of all species soar far aloft to wheel In wide circles and drift in the sunshine of the upper air. The “winter bird” indulges In this also, but to a somewhat lesser extent than do the gulls of other species. The greater part of the kittiwake flocks prefer to bank up along the steamer’s course, so as to be at hand at the haul, utilizing the Interval to preen their feathers and bathe and dip like sparrows In a puddle. In fact. it ~vas a considerable time before I could be sure that the kittiwake joined In these lofty aerial maneuvers; yet they surely did, sweeping on motionless wings in great spirals at a height where the eye could hardly follow them or distinguish them, but never falling to drop with all swiftness when warned by the whistle that the feast was about to be spread for them. What an enormous amount of food must be needed to support all this great sea-bird population on the bags and petrels In the summer months, the gulls in the colder weather, the full round of the year.

Breeding range: Northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere; in North America east to Greenland and the Labrador coast. South to the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Newfoundland, Bird Rock, Bonaventure Island, and Anticosti) and probably parts of Hudson Bay. The western limit of its range, where the subspecies pollicaris takes its place, is unknown, but it has been stated to occur west to Franklin Bay. North to Prince Albert Land (near Princess Royal Islands); the south shore of North Somerset; north of Wellington Channel (latitude 770), and northern Greenland (Thank God Harbor on the northwestern coast, and between latitude 800 and 810 on the northeastern coast). In the Old World breeds from Iceland, Great Brit am (Shetland and Orkney Islands, Hebrides, coast of Ireland and England, except southern parts); Spitzbergen, probably Franz Josef Land, Nova Zembla and coast of western Siberia (said by Koren to range east to Chaun Bay, northern Siberia. South to northwestern France.

Breeding grounds protected in the Canadian reservations on Bird Rock, Bonaventure Island, and Perck Rock.

Winter range: Offshore from Gulf of St. Lawrence (Prince Edward Island), Nova Scotia (Halifax), New Brunswick (Grand Manan), and coast of Maine; occasionally on the Great Lakes; south to New Jersey and the Bermudas, and even farther south (latitude 250 57′ N., east of Miami). In Europe winters from the coasts of Great Britain south to the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, the Canary Islands, and Azores.

Spring migration: Return from ocean wandering to its breeding grounds. Early dates of arrival: Prince Edward Island, March 15 (average March 26); Quebec, Godhout. March 25 (average April 6); Greenland, Ivigtuk, March 26; Dover Strait, May 20; and Cape York, June 10. Late dates of departure: Bermuda, April 4; New York, Orleans County, April 10; Connecticut, New Haven, April 13.

Fall migration: Offshore and southward. Early dates of arrival: Massachusetts, October 2 (average November 6); Long Island, October 13; Pennsylvania, Erie, October 17. Late dates of departure: Northeastern Greenland, latitude 750 20′, August 1; Ellesmere Land, Lincoln Bay, September 1; Wellington Channel, September 2; Frobischer Bay, September 2; Cumberland Gulf. September 19; Newfoundland, October 17.

Casual records: Wanders occasionally to various points in the interior; to the Great Lakes frequently, as far west as Michigan (Neebish Island, fall 1893ó94) and Wisconsin (Racine, March 17, 1884); up the Mackenzie Valley (Fort Resolution, May 23, 1860): west in the interior to Wyoming (Douglas, November 18, 1898).

Egg dates: Great Britain: Thirty-one records, April 6 to JuDe 27; sixteen records, June 4 to 12. Newfoundland: Ten records, May 30 to July 1; five records, June 14 to 20. Gulf of St. Lawrence: Ten records, June 10 to 26; five records, June 13 to 25.


The Pacific form of the well-known kittiwake differs from its eastern relative in having a larger hind toe and more extensive black tips on the primaries, but its habits are practically the same and its life history is similar. The two subspecies together occupy a wide range throughout the northern part of the northern hemisphere, giving the species a circumpolar distribution.

Spring: The spring migration is early, reaching Bering Island, in the Commander group, according to Stejneger (1885), about the 1st of April. In Bering Sea the migration is delayed until the breaking up of the ice. Nelson (1887) says:

At St. Michaels each year they arrive from the 10th to the 18th of May, and were first seen searching for food in the narrow water channels In the tide cracks along shore. As the open spaces appeared they congregated there until in early June, when the ice broke up and moved offshore. At this time the kittiwakes sought the rugged cliffs along the shore of the mainland or the precipitous islands dotting Bering Sea and the adjoining Arctic.

Courtship: Very little seems to be known about the courtship or mating performances of this bird, but Mr. H. W. Elliott (1875) says that “the male treads the female on the nest, and nowhere else, making a loud shrill, screaming sound during the ceremony.”:

Nesting: We saw plenty of kittiwakes near the eastern end of the Aleutian Islands, where they were probably breeding in the vicinity of Akutan Island. West of Unalaska we saw very few birds and no signs of breeding colonies. Doctor Stejneger (1885) found them breeding in “astonishing numbers” at certain places in the Commander Islands, at the western end of the chain, where they choose “steep walls, rising perpendicularly out of the deep sea, and especially high pinnacles standing lonely amidst the foaming breakers, provided they are fitted out with shelves and projections upon which to place the nests.” Dr. W. H. Dall (1873) gives us the following good account of a breeding colony in the Shumagin Islands, south of the Alaska Peninsula:

On entering Coal Harbor, Unga, we were at once struck with the peculiar white line which wound around the precipitous cliffs of Round Island, and was seen to be caused by the presence of birds; and as soon as an opportunity was afforded I took a boat and went to the locality to examine It. The nests, In their position, were unlike anything I had ever seen before. At first It appeared as if they were fastened to the perpendicular face of the rock, but on a close examination it appeared that two parallel strata of the metamorphic sandstone of the cliffs, being harder than the rest, had weathered out, standing out from the face of the cliff from 1 to 4 inches, more or less irregularly. The nests were built where these broken ledges afforded a partial support, though extending over more than half their width. The lines of nests exactly followed the winding projections of these ledges, everywhere giving a very singular appearance to the cliff, especially when the white birds were sitting on them. The nests were built with dry grass, agglutinated together and to the rock In some unexplained manner; perhaps by a mucus secreted by the bird for the purpose. The nests had a very shallow depression at the top in which lay two eggs. The whole establishment had an intolerable odor of guano, and the nests were very filthy. The birds hardly moved at our approach; only those within a few yards leaving their posts. I reached up and took down two nests, one containing two young birds, and the other empty. Wind coming up. we were obliged to pull away, and the bird, which came back, lighted on the rock where her nest and young had been with evident astonishment at the mysterious disappearance. After flying about a little she again settled on the spot, and, suddenly making up her mind that foul play on the part of some other bird had taken place, she commenced a furious assault on her near~t neighbor. As we pulled away the little fellows began to be effected by the motion of the boat, and with the most ludicrous expression of nausea, Imitating as closely as a bird could do the motions and expression of a seasick person, they very soon deposited their dinner on the ~edge of the nest. It was composed of small fishes or minnows, too much disorganized to he Identified. Eggs, in a moderately fresh condition, were obtained about the same time, but most of them were far advanced toward hatching.

In Bering Sea we found this to be one of the commonest gulls and found it breeding on all of the islands where it could find high, rocky cliffs. On Walrus Island, where there are no high cliffs, we had an unusually good opportunity to examine the nests. Among the hosts of sea birds which made their summer home on this wonderful island a few little parties, of from four to six pairs each, of Pacific kittiwakes found a scanty foothold on the vertical faces of the low, rocky cliffs. Here their nests were skillfully placed on the narrow ledges or on little protuberances which seemed hardly wide enough to hold them, and often they were within a few feet of nesting California murres or red-faced cormorants, with which the island was overcrowded. The nests were well made of soft green grass and bits of sod securely plastered onto the rocks and probably were repaired and used again year after year. They were well rounded, deeply cupped on top, and lined with fine dry grass. Most of the nests, on July 7, contained two eggs, some only one, but none of them held young. The incubating birds and their mates standing near their nests were very gentle and tame. We had no difficulty in getting near enough to photograph them.

Eggs: The eggs of the Pacific kittiwakes are practically indistinguishable from those of the Atlantic kittiwake, though they will average a trifle larger and a trifle more pointed. The ground color seems to run more to the lighter shades, from “tilleul buff” or “olive buff” to “cartridge buff” or “pale olive buff.” Many sets show very pale shades of ” glaucous green or even greenish or bluish white. The markings are about the same as in the Atlantic bird, but average lighter with a larger proportion of the drab or gray spots. The measurements of 40 eggs in the United States National Museum and the writer’s collections average 58.4 by 41J3 millimeters, the eggs showing the four extreme measure 63 by 43.5, 55.5 by 41.5 and 58.5 by 37.5 millimeters.

Young: The young remain in the nests and are fed by their parents until they are able to fly. Both old and young birds spend much of their time on their breeding grounds and frequent their old nests until ready to migrate in September. The description of the downy young and the sequences of molts and plumages, already given for the Atlantic kittiwake, will do equally well for the Pacific subspecies. I can find no essential points of difference.

Food: Nelson (1887) says of their feeding habits:

From the end of August they frequent the inner hays and mouths of small streams, and are often seen in large parties feeding upon the myriads of stickle backs which are found along the coast at this season. They pursue their prey in the same graceful manner as the terns, by hovering over the water and plunging down head foremost. In the bay at St. Michaels they were frequently seen following a school of white whales, evidently to secure such fragments of fish or other food as the whales dropped in the water. It was curious to note how well the birds timed the whale and anticipated their appearance as the latter came up to blow.

Along the beach at Nome we saw kittiwakes almost constantly where they seemed to be picking up bits of garbage. Mr. A. W. Anthony (1906) saw them in winter at Puget Sound, associated with other gulls about the garbage heaps.

Behavior: Dr. E. W. Nelson (1883) pays the following tribute to the flight powers of this kittiwake:

During our cruising In the summer of 1581 I had repeated occasions to notice the graceful motions and powers of flight possessed by this handsome gull. Its buoyancy during the worst gales we met was fully equal to that possessed by the Rodger’s fuimar, with which it frequently associated at these times. These birds were continually gliding back and forth in graceful curves, now passing directly into the face of the gale, then darting off to one side on a long circuit, always moving steadily, with only an occasional stroke of the wings for long periods if there was a strong wind.

Mr. William Palmer (1890) also shows his admiration of it in the following words:

Viewed from the cliffs the flight of these birds is remarkably graceful, and especially so when they have been disturbed from a midday siesta. I thus disturbed several dozen one day and carefully watched them as they passed and repassed the spot where I sat on the edge of the cliff. They were all within 20 yards and continually paraded parallel with the cliff, all the while intently watching me. They would pass by for some 30 to 40 yards, then turn and fly an equal distance on the other side before again making a turn. Usually the whole distance was accomplished by sailing, and often the turns and several lengths were traveled in the same way. Thus, selecting an Individual and keeping my eyes on him I often counted from two to three trips without a flap of the wing. One Individual thus noted made the trip seven times without once changing his wings from their rigid outstretched position. The length of his parade was fully 50 yards and he sailed in an almost straight line, and rarely varied his level, being about as high above the sea as I was on the cliff. Not a movement of the air was perceptible to my senses. He was often so close that as he passed I could distinctly see the movement of his eye as he slightly turned his head to view me. Several times the fly lines of two birds would cross at about the same level, but rarely would one flap to gain impetus enough to get rapidly out of the way. It was more often accomplished by a quiver of the wings on the part of one of the two, a slight rise as the other passed beneath, and then a similar descent, and the continuation of the journey without any distinct flapping whatever. They thus sailed in plain view as long as I remained on the rocks, probably 30 minutes.

Winter: These hardy birds of Arctic seas seem quite at home among the drifting ice and snowstorms, and it is not until their summer feeding grounds become permanently closed with winter ice, in October, that they are forced southward to spend the winter months in the Aleutian Islands, along the Alaska coast, and south to Puget Sound, or even California. Here they associate freely with the other common gulls on the coast or spend their time offshore. They are so much more pelagic in their habits than other gulls that they seem much Less abundant than they really are.

Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Pacific, Bering Sea, and the adjacent Arctic Ocean. East to Cape Lisburne and other suitable parts of the western Alaskan coast. South to Seldovia, Alaska, the Shumagin, Aleutian, Commander, and Kurile Islands. West along the coast of Kamchatka and northeastern Siberia to the Koliutschin Islands. Occurs in summer, but has not been found breeding on the coast of southern Alaska (Yakutat and Sitka) at Point Barrow and on the Siberian coast from Koliutschin Islands to Chaun Bay.

Breeding grounds protected in the following national reservations in Alaska: Aleutian Islands (as Kiska, Near Islands, Unga, IJnimak Pass), Pribilofs, St. George Island.

Winter range: From southeastern Alaska (Sitka) and perhaps from the Aleutians, south along the coast of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California to northern Lower California (San Geronimo Island). On the Asiatic side south to the Kurile Islands and Japan (Yezo and Tokyo).

Spring migration: A return from ocean wandering to its breeding grounds. Early dates of arrival: Commander Islands, Bering Island, April 1; Pribilof Islands, St. Paul, April 20; Alaska, St. Michael, May 6, and Point Barrow, June 2. Late dates of departure: Lower California, San Geronimo Island, March 17; California, Point Pinos, April 25; Washington, Port Townsend, May 19; British Columbia, May 24.

Fall migration: Mainlv eastward and southward off the coasts, beginning in July and reaching British Columbia in September. Average date of arrival at Point Pinos is November 14, earliest November 5. Late dates of departure: Alaska, Point Barrow, August 31, and St. Michael about October 15; Pribilof Islands, St. Paul, October 12; Siberia, Koliutschin Island, September 22.

Egg dates: Pribilof Islands: Thirteen records, June 10 to July 7; seven records, June 25 to July 3. Northern Bering Sea: Nine records, June 10 to July 20; five records, June 20 to July 6.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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