What’s The Difference Between The Common Gull And Herring Gull

Gulls are underrated birds in the UK – to the point where many people don’t realise just how many species we are lucky to have visiting us across the year. To many, there are simply seagulls that steal food and raise noisy chicks on rooftops. However, there is a great variety of different appearances and habits that you can find in both coastal and urban environments. So in this article, I will answer, what is the difference between the Common Hull and Herring Gull?

The key differences between the Common Gull and Herring Gull are the Bill, Legs, Eye and Wing Tips. The Common Gulls Bill is quite thin and with a yellow and green tone but the Herring Gull Bill is much thicker and has a noticeable red spot on the bottom half. The Common Gulls Legs have a yellow and green tone but the Herring Gulls are pale pink. The Common Gull has dark eyes compared to the Herring Gull which has a much paler, almost piercing eye with a noticeable pupil. Finally, the Common Gull has small white wing tips which are far less pronounced on the long pointed wings of the Herring Gull.

If one were to say the term Common Gull to the average person with no prior knowledge, they might assume that this was the gull we see all the time by the sea or in town centres. After all, this is the most commonly seen of the gulls.

But, this isn’t the case as these are actually Herring Gulls. The Common Gull isn’t that common at all and quite sought-after in the birding community to make matters more confusing. As such, it helps to be able to tell the difference.

The Difference Between Common Gulls And Herring Gulls

This guide will detail the differences between the two birds, including various physical characteristics, calls, and behavioural habits. To put it simply, the Common Gull looks like the more delicate little cousin of the Herring Gull.

You might not see the difference straight away if one appears on the shore, but you will when they are side by side. Small physical details help with identifications. But, there is also the fact that you are unlikely to see Common Gulls in the neighbourhood as much as Herring Gulls – or hear them as much.

The bad reputation thrust upon the Herring Gull and seagulls, in general, is bad news for Common Gulls, as well as Black-Backed Gulls and migrants. So, let’s not only learn the difference between the two but help correct this negative image.

The Problem With The Term Seagull

The term Seagull is one that many birdwatchers hate, and understandably so. The name has become such a catch-all expression for any gull that they all get lumped into the same category. This poses many problems when it comes to encouraging others to identify the different species seen in the UK and the reputation of gulls overall.

Many species either live in the UK or visit for a season. The one that people love to demonise is the Herring Gull, but we also have colonies of Greater and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, Black Headed Gulls and Common Gulls.

The Common Gull is easily mistaken for a Herring Gull but much rarer, so it helps to know how to tell the difference. Occasionally, you may find something that looks slightly different, like an Icelandic or Ring-billed Gull.

Spotting Common Gulls In The UK

Common Gulls aren’t that common in the UK anymore, and while they are present across a wide portion of the country, they don’t have large numbers in any area. You may see some on the coast or around estuaries with other species.

There is also the risk of overlooking them entirely and writing them off as Herring Gulls. You are less likely to see these birds in cities or away from the coast because they have become as urbanised as the Herring Gull. Still, some have made their way inland when presented with good opportunities.

Telling The Difference Between Gull Species

This is where it helps to pay attention to key features when looking at any gull. They are the general size of the bird, the head shape, the tone and pattern of the wings, the appearance of the bill, and the colour of the legs.

While there are many similarities in the build and plumage of these gulls, the finer details in the anatomy vary significantly with different colours and markings.

The Size Difference Between Common Gulls And Herring Gulls

The first difference between these birds is their size. This is more noticeable if you are lucky enough to get a Common Gull feeding or resting amongst Herring Gulls. Otherwise, it may be a little harder to judge.

There is also a slightly different shape here, with this gull having more delicate features, such as less mass to the body and a rounded head. An adult has a nice slim form with a body that tapers down to the wing tips and tail.

You could be forgiven for thinking that a male Common Gull looks like it could be a female Herring Gull based on these differences.

If you can get a closer look at these birds through binoculars or a camera lens, you may then get to see some of the other distinguishing features of the Common Gull. There are four to look out for here. They are the bill, legs, eye and wingtips.

The Bill of the Common Gull Vs Herring Gull

The bill is a good starting point because it should be more obvious. On the Common Gull, it is quite thin with a yellow-green tone. By comparison, the bill of the Herring gull is much thicker and there is a noticeable red spot on the bottom like a smudge of lipstick.

The Legs Of The Herring Gull Vs Common Gull

That yellow-green tone on the Common Gull’s bill is also seen on its legs. But, this may be harder to spot in certain light conditions or if they are fishing around in the mud. The legs and feet of the Herring Gull are a pale pink instead.

On that note, leg colour is also a good way to tell other gull species apart. There are other smaller gulls in the UK that you might see, such as the Black Headed Gull And Mediterranean Gull.

When these down have their strong black breeding plumage on their heads, they can look like other species. The red tones of their darker legs and bills are the giveaway here.

The Difference In The Eyes Of The Herring Gull And Common Gull

As for the eye, there are two common eye types in the gull world. One is the dark eye that stands out against the white head. Many smaller species have this, including the Common Gull.

The other type is the much paler, piercing eye with a noticeable pupil. This is seen in the Herring Gull as well as the Black-Backed species and some visitors.

While this gaze adds to some people’s dislike of the Herring Gull, it does have its benefits. Researchers have found that Herrings Gulls respond to eye contact with humans.

That means that if you engage in a staring contest with a curious gull while eating food outside, it is more likely to move on to a different target.

The Wings Of Common And Herring Gulls

The last feature is the white on the wingtips. These are noticeable on adult birds with their uniform grey wings and black tails. This feature is also helpful to keep in mind when watching birds in the sky.

Here, it is much harder to pick out the colours of bills or legs or to gauge size. But, you might be able to notice the white spots at the end of the wings on the Common Gull.

This is far less pronounced on the long pointed wings of the Herring Gull. The grey tone on the wings of the adult Common Gull is also a nice shade that is a little lighter than a Lesser Black-Backed gull but darker than many migrants.

Identifying Juvenile Gulls

Unfortunately, it becomes a lot harder to tell the difference between the two species when it comes to the younger birds. Size still plays a part in identification here, and it is still worthwhile looking at the head shape and general build. But, the youngsters haven’t developed the same tones and plumage as the adults.

A juvenile in its first winter can have a lot of grey and brown throughout its body, especially along with the wings. The head and neck don’t have the same clean look as adults. This also means that the large white wingtips aren’t as pronounced yet.

This mottling is typical with gulls and terns and more striking when young chicks. The patterns allow for better camouflage before they can fend for themselves. This means that there are similarities between the juvenile Common Gulls and the juvenile Herring Gulls.

However, herring Gulls tend to be darker with more brown markings in their plumage. Also, you may notice that the bills are much darker and have the thickness of the adults. Eventually, they will develop the yellow and red beak and grey wins while retaining some streaking a the top of the head.

The Behaviour Of The Common Gull And Herring Gull

Otherwise, it can be difficult to tell the two species apart. They have similar behaviours and habits – aside from the more aggressive and over-confident tendencies of the Herring Gull. In towns and cities, the birds taking advantage of leftovers on tables or broken rubbish bags are the Herring Gulls. They have come inland to nest and make the most of what we have to offer.

Other species tend to stick to the coast. The dominant Greater Black-backed Gull has no reason to bother us when there are easy pickings on the shore or smaller birds and rats to eat. The Common Gull will also stick to these wilder areas out where it can and make the most of natural resources.

Both the Common Gull and Herring Gull will hunt for food when they need to. Fish, marine invertebrates and molluscs all allow for a good diet.

They will also take remains and scraps where they are available. For example, a dead fish that washes up or is discarded by a fishing boat is an easy meal – that is, as long as you can keep hold of it.

Both birds will also take worms where they can, and you may see Herring Gulls looking for worms in cities quite often. The comical tap-dance they do on the grass simulates the vibrations of rain and charming worms to the surface.

This also leads to some important differences in where these birds like to nest. The Common Gull prefers to stay out in a more natural landscape, with grass nests on a stump or high mound above the water level.

They will lay a couple of eggs in May and raise the chicks through the winter. The Herring Gull does something similar in terms of the number of eggs, although they may only have one large chick following them around in the summer.

The difference here is that they will make the most of rooftops and ledges to stay safe out of harm’s way. These replicate the cliff edges of the wild with a good view of any threats and easy access to food.

The Call Of The Herring And Common Gull

There are similarities in the calls of the Herring Gull and Common Gull in terms of the sounds made. The noise of the Common Gull is often listed as a “kee-ya” sound, while the squawks and calls of the Herring Gull are more varied. You will hear this one bellowing across the street and it would drown out other gulls. The pitch of the Common Gull is a lot higher too.

Take The Time To Check The Features Of The Gulls On Your Local Patch. So, the next time you see a gull in your local area or down by the seaside, take a moment to look out for those key physical features.

If you are face to face with a large bird eyeing up your food with pale eyes and that has that red spot on its bill and pink legs, you are dealing with a Herring Gull. But, if the gull seems smaller than average, a little less interested in what you are eating, has yellow-green features and darker eyes, you have one of the rarer Common Gulls.

See Also



I'm Wayne. For many years, I have been a fan of feeding the birds in my back garden and often asked myself questions about what I was seeing. This prompted me to research things further and I have continued to do so ever since. This is the site where I share everything I have learned.

Recent Posts