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Marine Animal Encyclopedia

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla

Black-legged kittiwakes get their name from their call—a loud, three-syllable shriek that echoes around their nesting colonies on northern coasts. A medium-sized, gray-backed gull, the black-legged kittiwake breeds on narrow cliff ledges but spends the rest of the year wandering far out to sea. It feeds mainly on small fish, and often follows fishing vessels. Unlike most gulls, however, it rarely shows any interest in scavenging food on land. Black-legged kittiwakes have evolved several adaptations for breeding on bare rock. Their feet have longer claws than those of most other gulls, and they build cup-shaped nests out of seaweed and mud, which help to keep their eggs secure. Both parent black-legged kittiwakes help to incubate the eggs and feed the young, and the adults’ recognition calls can make a deafening noise when several hundred pairs nest close together. After breeding, these birds disperse away from the coast, traveling as far south as tropics off West Africa. They are monogamous, with pairs of black-legged kittiwakes meeting up again at the same nesting site after spending up to eight months apart.

Black-legged Kittiwakezoom image
  • Order Charadriiformes
  • Length 15–18 in (39–46 cm)
  • Weight 11–18 oz (300–500 g)
  • Habitat Rocky coasts, inshore waters, open sea
  • Distribution Northern hemisphere; breeds north to Svalbard and Greenland
Black-legged Kittiwake habitat mapzoom image