As with many of our birds, the English names of gulls are generally pretty descriptive. Great and Lesser Black-backed Gull are obvious (though lesser in the UK have a grey rather than black back), Herring Gulls are apparently named due to their liking for the fish, while Mediterranean Gull was formerly restricted to the east Mediterranean and Baltic seas (though is now much more widespread). Black-headed Gull has a dark head which is actually brown, but close enough, while Common Gull, depending on who you believe, was either considered the most abundant gull or had a liking for commons! Interestingly the American name for Common Gull is ‘Mew Gull’ and as ‘Mew’ is the original English name for gull (which is derived from a Welsh word meaning to ‘wail’ or ‘moan’), this means it’s effectively called ‘Gull Gull’!
Herring Gull. Image: Nigel Symington
One we start looking at the scientific names things become a little bit more confusing. These names are generally made of two parts: the generic name and the specific name. Going back to Common Gull for instance, the scientific name is Larus canus, Larus being the generic name for gulls, canus meaning ‘grey’, the species. This gives us ‘Grey Gull’, which is also the English name of a South American gull, Leucophaeus modestus, and there are several cases like this. For instance, the scientific name of Herring Gull is Larus argentatus which translates as Silver Gull, the English name of Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae, an Australian relative of our Black-headed Gull, while the specific name of Lesser Black-backed Gull, fuscus, means darkened or dusky, there being a Dusky Gull (Leucophaeus
fuliginosus) which is endemic to the Galapagos Islands (or perhaps the Sooty Gull (Ichthyaetus hemprichii) of the Middle East and Africa at a stretch). Some are even better! The scientific name of Mediterranean Gull is Larus melanocephalus, which means ‘black-headed gull’, while that of Black-headed Gull is Larus (now Chroicocephalus) ridibundus, which translates as ‘laughing gull’, the English name of a North American gull species. The scientific name of this species is Leucophaeus atricilla, atricilla means ‘black-tailed’ (which Laughing Gull isn’t), but there is a Black-tailed Gull (Larus crassirostris) in Asia! Having fun yet?
The fact that Black-headed gull actually has a brown head has already been mentioned, but there is in fact a Brown-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus brunnicephalus) in central Asia. In this case the specific name brunnicephalus does actually mean ‘brown-headed’!
Finally, one species often seen at Rye Harbour which we haven’t mentioned yet is Little Gull, which after all this madness is refreshingly straightforward, being a small gull with a scientific name (Larus minutus) which means ‘small gull’! Phew!
This post is also available on Sussex Wildlife Trust website