Story: Gulls, terns and skuas
The screeching and scavenging gulls so familiar around New Zealand’s coastlines are closely related to terns and skuas. This group includes the small, delicate fairy terns as well as aggressive, cannibalistic skuas.
Full story by Gerard Hutching
Main image: Brown skua defending its prey
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New Zealand has three species of gulls. More than two million black-backed gulls live around New Zealand’s coasts, rivers and near-shore islands. At 60 centimetres long, they are the largest of the gulls living in the country. They have white bodies, black wings, and a yellow bill and legs. They feed around coasts and scavenge food inland.
Red-billed gulls have white and grey bodies. The bill and legs are red. They scavenge for food around city parks and rubbish tips as well as feeding at sea and along the shore.
Black-billed gulls are found only in New Zealand. They are white and grey, with a black bill.
Terns belong to the same family as gulls. They look similar, except that they have a forked tail. Six species of tern live in New Zealand, and several others are visitors. Four members of the tern family are known as noddies, and they breed on the Kermadec Islands.
Black-fronted terns live only in New Zealand. They feed on insects and small fish. Because the birds eat worms from freshly ploughed fields, farmers call them ploughboys.
Caspian terns are the largest of the terns, while fairy terns are the smallest. Fairy terns are endangered – in the 1980s there were only four breeding pairs left in New Zealand. The Department of Conservation is working to protect them from being harmed by predators, such as stoats and rats, and by vehicles.
White-fronted, sooty and Antarctic terns live and breed on the New Zealand coast or offshore islands. Arctic terns sometimes visit the country on their long migration from the Arctic to Antarctica.
Skuas are aggressive seabirds that steal food from other birds, prey on eggs and chicks, and eat dead seals, sheep and cattle. Large brown skuas breed on the islands off mainland New Zealand.
South polar skuas can be found at the Ross Dependency, in Antarctica. Arctic skuas visit New Zealand during the northern hemisphere winter.