Kelp gull (Larus dominicanus)

Also known as: Dominican gull, Southern black-backed gull
French: Goéland dominicain
GenusLarus (1)
SizeLength: 54 - 65 cm (2)
Wingspan: 128 - 142 cm (2)
Weight900 - 1335 g (2)

Classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The kelp gull is a large bird with slate-black wings, a white head and body, and an all-white tail. The underwing is white, tipped black, and the dark upperwing bears a white bar, with white markings on the wing tips. The beak is yellow, with a conspicuous red spot on the lower mandible, and the yellow eye is surrounded by an orange-red ring (2) (3) (4). The pale eyes, together with greenish-yellow rather than yellow legs, and a larger, more robust body, help distinguish the kelp gull from the similar-looking lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) (2) (5). The male and female kelp gull are similar in appearance (3), while non-breeding adults have brown mottling on the head and neck (2). Juveniles are dark brown and mottled, with a blackish tail, dark beak, brownish legs and brown eyes (2) (3). Adult plumage is usually attained by the fourth year (2). The kelp gull’s call is a loud ki-ok, and the alarm call is a short, repeated pok (5).

The kelp gull is widespread along coasts and on islands throughout the Southern Hemisphere, occurring in southern Africa, Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, South America and the Falkland Islands, as well as on Antarctica and many subantarctic islands (2) (3) (4) (6). Although largely sedentary, some southern populations migrate north outside of the breeding season (2) (3).

Mainly inhabiting coastal regions, the kelp gull can be found in a variety of habitats including harbours, bays, inlets, estuaries, beaches and rocky shores, and usually forages within about ten kilometres of the shore (6). It may also venture inland, visiting lakes, lagoons, rivers, streams and reservoirs, as well as pastures, cultivated land, grassland and scrubland. Breeding usually takes place on headlands, sea cliffs, beaches, offshore islands, pastures, or even on roofs in urban areas (2) (6).

The diet of the kelp gull is very varied, and includes molluscs, fish, worms, echinoderms, arthropods (sometimes including swarming termites), reptiles, amphibians, birds, small mammals, and berries (2) (4) (6). Sickly lambs and young poultry are also sometimes taken, and the kelp gull may even attack and kill adult birds as large as geese (2). It also scavenges on rubbish, sewage, carrion, and fish offal, and can often be seen following boats at sea or foraging around abattoirs, fish or seafood factories, or sewage outlets (2) (4) (6). Food may sometimes be stolen from other birds such as terns and penguins (2) (4), and in some areas the species associates with southern right whales (Eubalaena australis), capturing prey items stirred up by the whales (2). The kelp gull is able to dive briefly to obtain food from below the water surface, and has also been seen to drop molluscs onto hard surfaces to break open the shells (2) (4).

The kelp gull breeds between September and January, in colonies numbering from one to several hundred pairs (2) (6). The species is monogamous, with pair bonds usually maintained from one breeding season to the next, and strengthened by courtship feeding during winter months. Both adults help to incubate the eggs and raise the chicks (4). The nest, built on bare rock, sand or mud, often in a well-vegetated site, is a large and bulky structure, constructed from dried vegetation or seaweed (2) (4) (6). Around 3 eggs are laid (2) (4), which hatch after 24 to 30 days, the young kelp gulls fledging approximately 7 weeks later (2). Kelp gulls begin to breed from around three to four years old, and may live for 20 years (4).

A common, widespread species with a large global population, the kelp gull is not currently considered globally threatened (2) (6), and may even have increased with the expansion of agriculture and fisheries (2). Potential threats to the species include oil spills, diseases such as avian cholera and avian botulism, mortality from interactions with trawler warp cables, persecution by humans, and disturbance at breeding sites (6) (7).

In some areas the kelp gull is considered a ‘nuisance’ species, often concentrated close to cities and thought to pose a potential health threat to humans, leading to calls for its populations to be controlled. However, no kelp gull colonies are currently under any kind of management (7). It is also thought that increasing kelp gull populations could have a negative effect on other coastal wildlife, for example through increased harassment of other sea birds (7) (8). In particular, this gull has recently developed the habit of gouging skin and blubber from the backs of southern right whales, opening up lesions and causing the whales to take evasive action (2) (8). It is feared that increasing harassment may compromise calf development and even cause the whales to leave the affected areas (8).

Management and research actions suggested to address these problems include monitoring of kelp gull colonies, particularly close to urban areas, as well as an evaluation of the effects of the gulls on other coastal species, and more careful treatment and disposal of refuse, sewage and fish offal, to discourage scavenging and to help control gull numbers (7). Given the kelp gull’s abundance and large range, and its presence in many protected coastal areas, the threats to the species are not thought likely to pose any conservation problems in the near future (7).

To find out more about the kelp gull see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Blake, E.R. (1977) Manual of Neotropical Birds. Volume 1: Spheniscidae (Penguins) to Laridae (Gulls and Allies). University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
  4. Riffenburgh, B. (2007) Encyclopedia of the Antarctic. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
  5. Sinclair, I. (1997) Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa. Struik, Cape Town.
  6. BirdLife International (June, 2009)
  7. Yorio, P., Bertellotti, M., Gandini, P. and Frere, E. (1998) Kelp gulls Larus dominicanus breeding on the Argentine coast: population status and relationship with coastal management and conservation. Marine Ornithology, 26: 11 - 18.
  8. Rowntree, V.J. (1998) Increased harassment of right whales (Eubalaena australis) by kelp gulls (Larus dominicanus) at Península Valdés, Argentina. Marine Mammals Science, 14: 99 - 115.