Little gull (Larus minutus)
|Size||Length: 25 - 30 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 70 - 78 cm (2)
|Weight||88 - 162 g (2)|
The little gull is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
Aptly named for being the smallest gull in the world, the little gull (Larus minutus) is also distinguished by its broad, rounded wings, entirely black head, and dark underwings (2) (3) (4). The neck, tail and underparts are white, often with a pinkish tinge on the breast, and the back and upperwings are grey, with a white trailing edge to the wings. The legs and feet are bright red, and the short bill is dark reddish-black. Outside of the breeding season, the little gull loses the dark hood over the head, which becomes white apart from a dark cap and dark spot behind the eye (2) (3) (4).
Juvenile little gulls are distinctive, having a blackish cap, black over the ears, a black band on the tail, pale underwings and dark upperparts, with a bold, black zig-zag pattern on the back and wings (2) (3) (4). As the young little gull matures, it develops a greyer back and variable dark markings on the head (2) (3) (4), achieving full adult plumage in its third year (3). The flight of the little gull is described as agile and buoyant (3) (4), and its calls include a short, repeated kek (4) (5).
The little gull breeds primarily in northern Scandinavia, the Baltic republics and western Russia, as far as eastern Siberia. However, it also sometimes breeds in western and central Europe and in the Great Lakes of North America (2) (3) (6). A migratory species, the little gull winters to the south and west of its breeding range, in the Mediterranean, on the Atlantic coast of Europe, and on the coastlines of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea (2) (3) (6). The movements of the most easterly birds are poorly known, but some are thought to migrate to eastern China (2). The population in North America mainly overwinters along the east coast (3).
The little gull usually breeds inland, on shallow, freshwater or brackish lakes, in river valleys, marshes and bogs, or sometimes in coastal lagoons (2) (3) (4) (6). It usually prefers to nest in habitats with abundant vegetation in muddy, shallow water (2) (6). Outside of the breeding season, the little gull can be found along the coast, on reservoirs, lagoons, lakes, river mouths, or at sea (2) (3) (6).
During the breeding season, the little gull feeds mainly on insects, including dragonflies, beetles and midges, and it may also take small fish and marine invertebrates during winter (2) (3). This species feeds by dipping to the water’s surface to catch prey, by plucking prey from the surface while swimming, or sometimes by plunge-diving into the water (2) (3). It may also take insects in the air, and is often seen foraging with other small gull species, especially during winter (3).
The little gull usually arrives at its breeding grounds from late April to May, and breeds from late June, either in solitary pairs or in small colonies, often with other gulls and terns (2) (3) (4) (6). The nest is typically built on the ground in wet vegetation, close to or even on water, often floating at the edge of emergent vegetation (2) (3). Clutch size is usually between 1 and 3 eggs (2), or sometimes up to 4 (3) (5), and the eggs hatch after 23 to 25 days (2). The chicks are well developed on hatching, and able to leave the nest within a few days (3) (5), although they are unable to fly until around 21 to 24 days old and remain dependent on the adults for a further few weeks (2). The little gull does not begin to breed until two to three years of age (2) (3). After the breeding season, little gulls often gather in small flocks, although larger groups of hundreds or even thousands of individuals also sometimes form (2) (3) (6).
The little gull is a widespread species and is not currently considered at risk of extinction (6). However, little gulls around parts of the Caspian Sea have been found to carry relatively high levels of mercury, which may affect breeding success (7), while the small population in North America may potentially be affected by the alteration and degradation of its wetland habitats (3).
There are no specific conservation measures currently in place for the little gull, although it may benefit from its listing on Appendix II of the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), which calls on parties to undertake conservation actions to help protect wetland bird species (8). Investigations into the extent of pollution in the Caspian Sea may be needed to help protect this species (7), and further ecological research has been recommended in North America, where potential measures to improve the little gull’s breeding success include providing artificial nesting rafts, as well as controlling water levels and human disturbance during the breeding season (3).
To find out more about the little gull and its conservation, see:
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Little Gull:
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- Brackish: slightly salty water, usually a mixture of salt and freshwater, such as that found in estuaries.
- Emergent: aquatic plants whose stems and leaves extend beyond the water’s surface.
- Invertebrates: animals with no backbone, such as insects, crustaceans, worms, molluscs, spiders, cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, sea anemones) and echinoderms.
IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1996) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Ewins, P.J. and Weseloh, D.V. (1999) Little gull (Larus minutus). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
- Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology - All About Birds: Little Gull (November, 2010)
BirdLife International (November, 2010)
- Rajaei, F. and Sari, A.E. (2010) Mercury concentration in 3 species of gulls, Larus ridibundus, Larus minutus, Larus canus, from south coast of the Caspian Sea, Iran. Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 84: 716-719.
Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (November, 2010)