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Overview

Brief Summary

Kittiwakes are true seabirds. They spend practically their entire life at sea. They only land on the coast to breed and make their nests on the steep cliffs of Heligoland, England, Scotland and Scandinavia. Since 2000, kittiwakes have also been breeding in Dutch territory, on drilling platforms at sea. Being at sea so much, they eat mostly fish, which they capture by hanging just above the water surface. They dive into the water as soon as they sight something that looks tasty. It's not difficult to make a mistake. When a kittiwake is found on the beach, it is usually a victim of marine litter, having mistaken it for something edible.
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Distribution

In North America, the Black-legged Kittiwake spans both coasts, as far north as the ice-free waters of Alaska in the west and the Great Banks of Newfoundland in the east. It lives as far south as Baja, California in the west and the tip of Florida in the east. Outside of America it can be found in nearly every coastal area of the world, given the proper habitat is available. This includes the coast of Norway, Britian, France, and the former Soviet Union, along with China, Japan, Korea, Central Europe, and nw. Africa.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); australian (Native )

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Range Description

The Black-legged Kittiwake nests along coastlines in much of the north Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and also breeds on inlands off the northern coast of Russia and on the northern coast of Norway. It winters at sea, ranging across much of the north Atlantic and Pacific oceans (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Overall population trends are unknown, though failed breeding seasons in 2008 and in some cases significant population declines have been observed in the United Kingdom by the RSPB.
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Global Range: Breeding range is circumpolar and primarily includes islands and suitable shores of the Arctic Ocean, southward to the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska, southeastern Canada, France, Kuril Islands, and Sakhalin, Russia. During the nonbreeding season, the western (Pacific) population occurs primarily from the pack ice edge south to Baja California, Mexico; also along the northern coast of china to Japan, with small numbers in Korea and Turkestan. Eastern populations winter offshore from Newfoundland south to Florida and the Gulf coast. European populations winter south to northwestern Africa. The species occurs casually in Hawaii, interior North America, and Italy (Baird 1994).

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North America; Oceania; oceans of the northern hemisphere
  • North-West Atlantic Ocean species (NWARMS)
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circum-arctic
  • UNESCO-IOC Register of Marine Organisms
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Circumpolar (almost). North Pacific south to Japan and Baja California. Northern Atlantic south to New Jersey, mostly remaining north of 40° N.
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Physical Description

Morphology

The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull, with a pearl gray back and wings and a stark white head and underside. The tips of the tail feathers are black. The adult bill is uniformly greenish-yellow. In spite of its name, its legs can be orange or red, although they are most commonly black.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry

Average mass: 317 g.

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Size

Length: 43 cm

Weight: 421 grams

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Length: 39-46 cm, Wingspan: 90-92 cm
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Ecology

Habitat

The Black-legged Kittiwake nests on ledges of offshore islands, sea stacks, or inaccessible areas of coastal mainland. It also nests on steep earthen slopes, large boulders, glaciers, and cliff-like man-made structures, such as shipwrecks and skyscrapers. A true shoreline species, it rarely comes very far inland, even in the winter.

Aquatic Biomes: coastal

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Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Behaviour This species is migratory and disperses after breeding from coastal areas to the open ocean (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It returns to its breeding grounds from January where it breeds from mid-May to mid-June in huge single- or mixed-species colonies (del Hoyo et al. 1996) that often exceed 100,000 pairs (del Hoyo et al. 1996, Snow and Perrins 1998). Breeding may occur later after periods of cold weather and many individuals do not remain on the breeding grounds during such conditions (del Hoyo et al. 1996). The species begins to disperse from the breeding colonies between July and August, often moulting in large flocks of several thousand individuals on beaches between the breeding grounds and the open sea (Olsen and Larsson 2003). Non-breeders may also remain at sea during the breeding season (Snow and Perrins 1998). Outside of the breeding season the species often occurs singly or in pairs (Snow and Perrins 1998) but may also occur in small flocks or as dispersed aggregations (Flint et al. 1984, Snow and Perrins 1998). Habitat Breeding It nests on high, steep coastal cliffs with narrow ledges in areas with easy access to freshwater (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Non-breeding The species moults on sandy beaches (Olsen and Larsson 2003) and on passage it may concentrate at sea on continental shelves, areas of upwelling (del Hoyo et al. 1996) and at rich fish banks (Olsen and Larsson 2003). During the winter the species is highly pelagic, usually remaining on the wing out of sight of land (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Diet Its diet consists predominantly of marine invertebrates (e.g. squid and shrimps) and fish, although during the breeding season it may also take intertidal molluscs, crustaceans (del Hoyo et al. 1996) (e.g. crayfish) (Flint et al. 1984), earthworms, small mammals and plant matter (e.g. aquatic plants, potato tubers and grain) (del Hoyo et al. 1996). At sea during the winter it will also take planktonic invertebrates and often exploits sewage outfalls and fishing vessels (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Breeding site The nest is a compacted mass of mud (Snow and Perrins 1998), grass and feathers (Flint et al. 1984) usually built on a narrow ledge on high, steep coastal cliffs (del Hoyo et al. 1996). Occasionally the species may also nest on glaciers or snow banks (where these have covered traditional cliff nesting sites), on buildings and piers, or on flat, rocky or sandy sites up to 20 km inland (del Hoyo et al. 1996). It breeds in very large colonies with neighbouring nests spaced evenly 30-60 cm apart (where site availability allows) (Snow and Perrins 1998), and generally feeds within 50 km of the breeding colony (del Hoyo et al. 1996).

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
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Comments: NON-BREEDING: primarily pelagic, sometimes along seacoasts, bays and estuaries, casually on large inland bodies of water (AOU 1983).

BREEDING: Nests on ledges of steep cliffs along coasts or on islands, often in association with other seabirds; sometimes on ledges of buildings. Nest is a cup-like structure of seaweeds, mosses, grasses, and mud.

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Depth range based on 164328 specimens in 1 taxon.
Water temperature and chemistry ranges based on 105902 samples.

Environmental ranges
  Depth range (m): 0 - 0
  Temperature range (°C): -1.109 - 26.556
  Nitrate (umol/L): 0.038 - 16.868
  Salinity (PPS): 6.218 - 36.400
  Oxygen (ml/l): 4.607 - 9.061
  Phosphate (umol/l): 0.062 - 1.130
  Silicate (umol/l): 0.565 - 16.169

Graphical representation

Temperature range (°C): -1.109 - 26.556

Nitrate (umol/L): 0.038 - 16.868

Salinity (PPS): 6.218 - 36.400

Oxygen (ml/l): 4.607 - 9.061

Phosphate (umol/l): 0.062 - 1.130

Silicate (umol/l): 0.565 - 16.169
 
Note: this information has not been validated. Check this *note*. Your feedback is most welcome.

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Offshore, cold and warm water, prefers areas of upwellings.
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Stellwagen Bank Pelagic Community

 

The species associated with this page are major players in the pelagic ecosystem of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Stellwagen Bank is an undersea gravel and sand deposit stretching between Cape Cod and Cape Ann off the coast of Massachussets. Protected since 1993 as the region’s first National Marine Sanctuary, the bank is known primarily for whale-watching and commercial fishing of cod, lobster, hake, and other species (Eldredge 1993). 

Massachusetts Bay, and Stellwagen Bank in particular, show a marked concentration of biodiversity in comparison to the broader coastal North Atlantic. This diversity is supported from the bottom of the food chain. The pattern of currents and bathymetry in the area support high levels of phytoplankton productivity, which in turn support dense populations of schooling fish such as sand lance, herring, and mackerel, all important prey for larger fish, mammals, and seabirds (NOAA 2010). Sightings of many species of whales and seabirds are best predicted by spatial and temporal distribution of prey species (Jiang et al 2007; NOAA 2010), providing support for the theory that the region’s diversity is productivity-driven.

Stellwagen Bank is utilized as a significant migration stopover point for many species of shorebird. Summer visitors include Wilson’s storm-petrel, shearwaters, Arctic terns, and red phalaropes, while winter visitors include black-legged kittiwakes, great cormorants, Atlantic puffins, and razorbills. Various cormorants and gulls, the common murre, and the common eider all form significant breeding colonies in the sanctuary as well (NOAA 2010). The community of locally-breeding birds in particular is adversely affected by human activity. As land use along the shore changes and fishing activity increases, the prevalence of garbage and detritus favors gulls, especially herring and black-backed gulls. As gull survivorship increases, gulls begin to dominate competition for nesting sites, to the detriment of other species (NOAA 2010). 

In addition to various other cetaceans and pinnipeds, the world’s only remaining population of North Atlantic right whales summers in the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary. Right whales and other baleen whales feed on the abundant copepods and phytoplankton of the region, while toothed whales, pinnipeds, and belugas feed on fish and cephalopods (NOAA 2010). The greatest direct threats to cetaceans in the sanctuary are entanglement with fishing gear and death by vessel strikes (NOAA 2010), but a growing body of evidence suggests that noise pollution harms marine mammals by masking their acoustic communication and damaging their hearing (Clark et al 2009).

General threats to the ecosystem as a whole include overfishing and environmental contaminants. Fishing pressure in the Gulf of Maine area has three negative effects. First and most obviously, it reduces the abundance of fish species, harming both the fish and all organisms dependent on the fish as food sources. Secondly, human preference for large fish disproportionately damages the resilience of fish populations, as large females produce more abundant, higher quality eggs than small females. Third, by preferentially catching large fish, humans have exerted an intense selective pressure on food fish species for smaller body size. This extreme selective pressure has caused a selective sweep, diminishing the variation in gene pools of many commercial fisheries (NOAA 2010). While the waters of the SBNMS are significantly cleaner than Massachusetts Bay as a whole, elevated levels of PCBs have been measured in cetaceans and seabird eggs (NOAA 2010). Additionally, iron and copper leaching from the contaminated sediments of Boston Harbor occasionally reach the preserve (Li et al 2010). 


  • Clark CW, Ellison WT, Southall BL, Hatch L, Van Parijs SM, Frankel A, Ponirakis D. 2009. Acoustic masking in marine ecosystems: intuitions, analysis and implication. Inter-Research Marine Ecology Progress Series 395:201-222.
  • Eldredge, Maureen. 1993. Stellwagen Bank: New England’s first sanctuary. Oceanus 36:72.
  • Jiang M, Brown MW, Turner JT, Kenney RD, Mayo CA, Zhang Z, Zhou M. Springtime transport and retention of Calanus finmarchicus in Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays, USA, and implications for right whale foraging. Marine Ecology 349:183-197.
  • Li L, Pala F, Mingshun J, Krahforst C, Wallace G. 2010. Three-dimensional modeling of Cu and Pb distributions in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays. Estuarine Coastal & Shelf Science. 88:450-463.
  • National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration. 2010. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctary Final Management Plan and Environmental Assessment. “Section IV: Resource States” pp. 51-143. http://stellwagen.noaa.gov/management/fmp/pdfs/sbnms_fmp2010_lo.pdf
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Migration

Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Occurs in winter in southern part of breeding range; migratory status in those areas? Arrives in breeding areas late February-early March in south, April-May in north (Terres 1980). Fall migration from Beaufort Sea region apparently begins in late August (Johnson and Herter 1989).

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Move offshore after breeding season.
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Trophic Strategy

Unlike many gulls, the Black-legged Kittiwake does not feed at dumps. Rather, it feeds on the water surface. An opportunistic feeder, it feeds on small surface fish and invertebrates. It prefer fishs, and the species consumed most often are capelin, sandlance, arctic cod, pollock, saffron cod, small trout, and young salmon.

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Comments: Feeds on small fishes, mollusks, crustaceans, and plankton. Feeds from surface, mostly at sea; follows ships in large flocks and eats refuse. Drinks salt water.

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Mostly fish. Also eats crustaceans, marine worms, mollusks, squid, insects, sometimes plant material.
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Population Biology

Global Abundance

>1,000,000 individuals

Comments: The large global population is estimated at 17 to 18 million birds (Wetlands International 2002). The Pacific subspecies has a breeding population of about 2.6 million individuals at colonies in the eastern North Pacific and adjacent seas (Baird 1994). The western North Atlantic population (Arctic Canada to Gulf of St. Lawrence) is estimated at 900,000 birds, and the western Greenland breeding population includes 300,000-600,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2002).

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General Ecology

Ravens regularly prey on eggs and chicks and at least sometimes on adults. Adult annual survivorship was about 80% in one study (Aebischer 1990).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
307 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 28.5 years (wild) Observations: In the wild, these animals have been observed to become better breeders with time but they also show a decrease in reproductive performance in their last year before they die. The latter could be caused by disease rather than ageing since it was observed in breeders of all ages (Coulson and Fairweather 2001).
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Reproduction

Pairs are generally monogamous, although males attempt to mate with other partners. In a study done in Britian, 64% of pairs remained together from one breeding season to the next. Due to their global distribution, it is difficult to give precise copulation, incubation, and hatching dates for kittiwakes. Black-legged Kittiwakes nest on cliffs, and the male retains the same nest site from year to year. After the nest is ready, 1 to 3 eggs are laid. The male and female incubate the eggs for about 25 days. At this time the chicks hatch. The parents seem to share the responsibilities for the chicks evenly, with both sexes feeding and brooding the young.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average time to hatching: 27 days.

Average eggs per season: 2.

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Eggs laid mostly in June at Semidi Islands, Alaska (Hatch and Hatch 1988). Clutch size 1-3 (usually 2). Incubation by both sexes, 23-32 days (Terres 1980) (also reported as 25-31 days). Young tended by both adults, depart nest at 36-53 days (average 42, see Hatch and Hatch 1990); can fly at about 38-48 days (Terres 1980); fledging begins in August in Alaska (Hatch and Hatch 1988). Rarely more than 1 young survives to fledging (Braun and Hunt 1983). Nests in large colonies. In western Alaska, reproductive success generally was low or nil in years with cold spring weather (Murphy et al. 1991).

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First breeds at 3-5 years old. Nests built on cliff edges by both partners. 1-3 eggs incubated by both sexes for 25-28 days. Young do not leave nest until capable of flight, around 34-58 days old. Young are fed by both parents.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Rissa tridactyla

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 13 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

AATCGATGATTATTTTCAACAAATCACAAAGACATCGGCACCTTATACCTAATCTTCGGCGCATGAGCTGGCATAGTGGGTACTGCCCTTAGCCTACTCATTCGTGCAGAACTTGGCCAACCCGGAACCCTCTTAGGAGAC---GACCAGATCTACAACGTAATTGTCAACCGTCACGCCTTCGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTAATACCAATCATGATCGGGGGATTCGGAAATTGACTAGTTCCACTTATAATCGGTGCTCCTGACATAGCATTTCCACGCATAAACAACATAAGCTTCTGACTGTTACCCCCATCATTCCTACTCCTCTTAGCCTCTTCCACAGTAGAAGCCGGAGCCGGCACAGGGTGAACAGTATATCCCCCCCTAGCTGGTAACCTAGCCCATGCTGGAGCTTCAGTAGATCTAGCAATTTTCTCCCTCCACTTAGCAGGTGTATCCTCCATTCTAGGTGCCATTAACTTTATCACTACAGCCATCAACATAAAACCCCCTGCCCTCTCACAATATCAAACCCCCCTATTCGTATGATCTGTGCTCATCACTGCCGTCCTATTACTACTTTCACTTCCAGTGCTTGCTGCAGGCATCACTATACTACTTACAGACCGAAACCTAAACACAACATTCTTTGACCCTGCCGGAGGAGGTGACCCCGTACTATATCAACACCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGTCACCCCGAAGTATACATCCTAATCCTACCAGGCTTTGGAATCATTTCTCATGTTGTAACATACTACGCAGGTAAAAAAGAACCATTCGGCTATATAGGAATAGTCTGAGCCATACTATCCATTGGATTCCTAGGTTTCATTGTCTGAGCCCACCACATATTTACAGTCGGAATAGACGTAGACACCCGAG
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Rissa tridactyla

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 13
Specimens with Barcodes: 18
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

Although there is no special status for the Black-legged Kittiwake, fishing poses a possible threat to population size. As fish stocks decline along coastal areas, species that are kittiwake prey are being harvested. This may lead to disasterous effects on the population of kittiwakes, which often depending largely on one major source for food.

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). Despite the fact that the population trend appears to be decreasing, the decline is not believed to be sufficiently rapid to approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N5B,N5N : N5B: Secure - Breeding, N5N: Secure - Nonbreeding

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5B,N5N : N5B: Secure - Breeding, N5N: Secure - Nonbreeding

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

Reasons: Secure: widespread and abundant.

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Status in Egypt

Winter visitor? and regular passage visitor?

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No official conservation status.
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Population

Population
The global population is estimated to number c.17,000,000-18,000,000 individuals (Wetlands International 2006), while national population sizes have been estimated at c.50-10,000 wintering individuals in Korea and c.10,000-100,000 breeding pairs and c.1,000-10,000 individuals on migration in Russia (Brazil 2009).

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
The species is threatened by the depletion of food resources (e.g. through over-fishing) (Frederiksen et al. 2004, Nikolaeva et al. 2006), marine oil spills (del Hoyo et al. 1996, Nikolaeva et al. 2006) and chronic oil pollution (Nikolaeva et al. 2006). It is also susceptible to avian influenza so may be threatened by future outbreaks of the virus (Melville and Shortridge 2006). The species is potentially threatened by climate change because it has a geographically bounded distribution: its global distribution is restricted to within c.10o latitude from the polar edge of continent and within which 20-50% of current vegetation type is projected to disappear under doubling of CO2 levels (BirdLife International, unpublished data). Utilisation The species is hunted in Greenland (del Hoyo et al. 1996).
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Comments: Potential threats include contamination of breeding and foraging habitat (e.g., from oil spills, contaminants such as mercury, and pesticides), depletion of prey species by commercial fisheries, and natural mortality from predation on eggs, chicks and adults, or chick death by falling from nests in breeding colonies (Baird 1994). These threats are neither widespread nor imminent.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Economic Uses

Comments: Extensively hunted in Greenland (Evans 1984a).

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Black-legged kittiwake

The black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) is a seabird species in the gull family Laridae.

This species was first described by Linnaeus in his Systema naturae in 1758 as Larus tridactylus.[2]

In North America, this species is known as the black-legged kittiwake to differentiate it from the red-legged kittiwake, but in Europe, where it is the only member of the genus, it is often known just as kittiwake.

The adult is 37–41 cm (15–16 in) in length with a wingspan of 91–105 cm (36–41 in) and a body mass of 305–525 g (10.8–18.5 oz).[3] It has a white head and body, grey back, grey wings tipped solid black, and have black legs and a yellow bill. Occasional individuals have pinky-grey to reddish legs, inviting confusion with red-legged kittiwake. In winter, this species acquires a dark grey smudge behind the eye and a grey hind-neck collar. The name is derived from its call, a shrill 'kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake'.

It is a coastal breeding bird around the north Pacific and north Atlantic oceans, found most commonly in North America and Europe. It breeds in large colonies on cliffs and is very noisy on the breeding ground. Cliff nesting for gulls occurs only in the Rissa species, and the kittiwake is capable of utilizing the very sheerest of vertical cliffs, as is evident in their nesting sites on Staple Island in the outer Farne Islands (Hogan, 2005). One to two buff spotted eggs are laid in the nest lined with moss or seaweed. The downy young of kittiwakes are white, since they have no need of camouflage from predators, and do not wander from the nest like Larus gulls for obvious safety reasons.

At fledging, the juveniles differ from the adults in having a black 'W' band across the length of the wings and whiter secondary and primary feathers behind the black 'W', a black hind-neck collar and a black terminal band on the tail. The old fisherman's name of "tarrock" for juvenile kittiwakes is still occasionally used.

They are fish feeders, and are more pelagic than Larus gulls outside the breeding season. They do not scavenge at tips like some other gull species.

There are two races of black-legged kittiwake:

  • Rissa tridactyla tridactyla in the North Atlantic Ocean, which is unique among the Laridae in having only a very small or even no hind toe.
  • Rissa tridactyla pollicaris in the North Pacific Ocean, which (as the name pollex, thumb, suggests) has a normally developed hind toe.

Gallery[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Rissa tridactyla". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ (Latin) Linnaeus, C (1758). Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Holmiae. (Laurentii Salvii). p. 136. "L, albicans dorso canescente, rectricibus excepto extimo nigris, pedibus tridaclylis." 
  3. ^ [1] (2011).

References[edit]

  • Harrison, Peter (1988). Seabirds: An Identification Guide. London: Christopher Helm. ISBN 0-7470-1410-8
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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: Two races: Rissa tridactyla tridactyla (in Europe); and R. t. pollicaris (from the North Pacific). No information is available on genetic differences between subspecies, but R. t. pollicaris generally has a longer bill, slightly larger size, a better developed hind toe/claw, and more black in the primaries (Baird 1994).

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