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The Kittiwake Gull


The Kittiwake Gull


The definitive website on wildbirds & nature



Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.

VOLUME VII.

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Family
Genus

THE KITTIWAKE GULL.
[Black-Legged Kittiwake.]

LARUS TRIDACTYLUS, Linn.
[Rissa tridactyla.]

PLATE CCCCXLIV.--ADULT IN SUMMER, AND YOUNG IN WINTER.

This beautiful Gull ranges, during the autumnal and winter months, along the whole of our extensive coasts. I have procured it from the mouth of the Mississippi to the coast of Maine, and have traced it from the latter district to Labrador. Yet I never saw it on any of our great lakes or rivers, nor in any part of the interior. From New York to Eastport it is extremely abundant, and many breed on the Island of Grand Manan, off the entrance of the Bay of Fundy.

As we approached the famous Gannet Rock of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the wind suddenly rose to a gale; but as I was exceedingly anxious that a landing should be effected on the island, every exertion was made to enable me to accomplish my purpose. The whale boat was manned. THOMAS LINCOLN and my son leaped into it, accompanied by young COOLEDGE. Urged by strong pulls, the buoyant boat advanced towards the grim rock. For nearly an hour it became hidden from my sight; but now and then the report of a gun brought intimation that all was as yet safe; and at length I had the great pleasure of seeing it advancing towards the Ripley, which stood off and on, shivering as it were under the heavy blast. My eye fixed to the telescope, watched every movement of the boat, as with fear I saw it tossed from billow to billow, this moment a glimpse of her keel appearing over the edge of a wave, the next a foot of her stem only seeming to float on the waters. "Pull steadily on, my good lads," at last came on my ear, when, by a heavy surge, the floating shell was driven back some twenty yards, as I thought, and the wave, foaming with wrath, broke over her. Breathless and exhausted, the crew at length came within reach of a line, as the boat was dangerously plunging, when by good luck the rope was thrown across her, and in a few moments she lay snug under our lee. How happy was I when I again saw my son, my young companions, and the sailors, on the deck of the Ripley. Quickly was the whaler hauled on board, and with joy we saw our vessel fly off like a Kittiwake before the gale.

When the anxiety was over, inquiries were made as to the success of the adventurous party. Several nests of the Kittiwake and many of its eggs had been brought safe on board. Notes had been taken on the spot, and the result of the expedition was as follows:--The nests were found placed on some ledge of the huge rock, so small as barely to admit their breadth, which was about a foot. They were placed where no other bird than the Guillemot would have ventured to drop its egg, or the Raven to fix his nest. Yet on that narrow platform the Kittiwake sat on its three eggs, as unconcerned as if in a meadow. The nests were altogether composed of sea-weeds called "eel-grass," and coarse grasses, probably procured on the top of the rock, or stolen from the nest of some unwary Solan Goose. Their inner surface was quite flat, although some of the nests were many inches in thickness, and looked as if they had been increased in bulk year after year. The sitting birds remained on their eggs with uncommon pertinacity, seldom indeed flying off, but merely moving aside. The male birds, or those that had no eggs, on the contrary, were extremely clamorous, flew around the party in great concern, and shewed much courage. The eggs are of a light olive-green colour, marked with numerous irregular spots of dark brown. Their average length is two inches and a quarter, their greatest breadth one inch and seven-eighths. No other species of Gull was seen about the rock; and indeed I have regularly observed that each species of this genus breeds far apart, although at all other seasons it may associate with others.

The young remain a considerable time in the nest or about it, when room is afforded. Their bills and feet are now quite black, the eye dark, and they do not change these colours until the second spring after their birth, when the bill is dull yellow, the legs and feet of a greenish flesh-colour, and these parts gradually improve in their tints until they acquire the appearance represented in the plate. This species raises only one brood in the season, and old and young leave the coast of Labrador at the first appearance of winter, or when the Ivory Gull reaches that country. This, however, I know only from hearsay, having received the information from a settler at Bras d'Or, who has lived there many years, and must know something of both species, as he was in the habit of salting young Kittiwakes for winter provisions, along with those of other species, and of shooting the Ivory Gull when it arrived over his harbour in the month of December.

The Kittiwake is on land the most awkward of its tribe; and, although it walks often on the rocks, its gait manifests a waddling gaucherie; but on the water, or in the air, few birds surpass it in buoyancy, grace, and ease of motion. 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 in our harbour, 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 mast-head of our largest man-of-war, the Kittiwakes float gracefully in wide circles, until all, as if fatigued, sail downward again with common accord towards 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.

The food of this species consists of small fish, sea insects, and small bivalves, most of which they procure while on wing, even those left dry by the tide. Unlike the larger species, they do not take up shell-fish to break them by letting them fall on the rocks; at least I never saw them do so. Their principal enemies are different species of Lestris, especially that beautiful one named the L. parasiticus. This tormentor follows the Kittiwake to the very waters around the Gulf of Florida during the winter. There, with astonishing swiftness, and an audacity scarcely to be surpassed, it gives chase to the Gull, overtakes it, and forces it to alight on the water, or to disgorge the fish which it has just swallowed.

The two represented in the plate were drawn at Boston, at the approach of spring, when the old birds had already assumed the pure white of the head. This species was so abundant on several of the islands of the Bay of Boston, that several basketsful of them were procured in the course of a few excursions. When one fell to the water, the rest would hover about and around the boat, until many were shot from a flock. The case was the same while we were in some of the harbours of Labrador.

LARUS TRIDACTYLUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 359.
LARUS TRIDACTYLUS, Kittiwake, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 423.
KITTIWAKE, Nutt. Man., vol. ii, p. 298.

KITTIWAKE GULL, Larus tridactylus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 186.

Adult, 18, 36 1/2.

Common as far south as New York. Abundant from Massachusetts eastward. Breeds from the Bay of Fundy northward.

Adult in summer.

Bill shorter than the head, strong, nearly straight, compressed. Upper mandible with the dorsal line nearly straight and slightly declinate, until towards the end, when it is decurved, the ridge convex, the sides slightly convex, the edges a little inflected, straight, towards the end declinate and arched, the tip rather obtuse. Nasal groove narrow, rather long; nostril in its fore part, lateral, longitudinal, linear, wider anteriorly, open, and pervious. Lower mandible with a slight prominence at the end of the angle, which is long and narrow, the dorsal line then nearly straight and ascending, the sides convex, the edges sharp and inflected.

Head rather large, oblong, anteriorly compressed. Neck of moderate length. Body rather full. Wings long. Feet of moderate length, rather strong; tibia bare below; tarsus somewhat compressed, covered before and behind with numerous broad scutella, the sides reticulated; hind toe rudimentary, with a minute knob in place of the claw; the fore toes rather long and slender, the fourth longer than the second, all scutellate above, and connected by reticulated entire membranes, the lateral toes margined externally with a narrow membrane. Claws small, compressed, slightly arched, rather obtuse.

The plumage in general is close, elastic, very soft and blended, on the back somewhat compact. Wings very long, rather broad, acute, the first quill longest, the other primaries rapidly graduated; secondaries broad and rounded, the inner elongated and narrow. Tail of moderate length, even, of twelve rounded feathers.

Bill pale greenish-yellow. Edges of eyelids crimson; iris reddish-brown. Feet black. The head, neck, rump, tail, and lower parts generally are pure white. The back and upper surface of the wings light pearl-grey. The first five quills are black at the end, the first on its outer web also, the fifth with a small white tip, the tips of all the other quills more or less white.

Length to end of tail 18 inches, to end of wings 20, to end of claws 17; extent of wings 36 1/2; wing from flexure 12; tail 7; bill along the back 1 1/2, along the edge of lower mandible 2 2/12; tarsus 1 7/12; middle toe 1 1/2, its claw 4/12. Weight 1 1/2 lbs.

Young bird in January.

Bill and feet black. Edges of eyelids and iris as in the adult. The hind head and neck are bluish-grey, and before the eye there is a semi-lunar blackish mark, the tips of the auriculars also dark grey. Forehead, sides of the head, throat, and lower parts, white, as is the rump. Tail white, with a broad terminal band of black, the outer feather having only a spot on the inner web. The mantle is bluish-grey, but a broad band of black crosses the lower part of the hind neck, and the larger wing-coverts are of the same colour towards the end. The primary quills are black, more or less margined with white internally.

Length to end of tail 17 inches, to end of wings 19, to end of claws 17; extent of wings 36 3/12. Weight 14 1/2 oz.

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