Proposal (315) to South American Classification Committee


Change English name of Larus ridibundus


Proposal: This proposal is to follow AOU, BOU and almost all leading European field guides in using straightforward "Black-headed Gull" for Larus ridibundus, rather than cumbersome "Common Black-headed Gull". "Common Black-headed Gull" is currently used on the SACC hypothetical list, with a recent proposal for promotion of this species to the main list.


Health warnings: Although there are lots of gull species with black heads, Larus ridibundus is not one of them. It has a chocolate-brown head in breeding plumage and becomes white-headed (with a brown spot behind the eye) in winter. Even the enthusiastic name-improvers at the BOU have failed to correct this entrenched name. This proposal therefore provides a choice between two inappropriate names. I use Larus herein, following the current baseline. Pending proposal 250 would result in a change of the Latin name of Larus ridibundus to Chroicocephalus ridibundus.


Usage: The most widely used English name for this species is "Black-headed Gull". Larus ridibundus is one of the most widespread and familiar birds in the UK. Few, if any, British birders ever call it a "Common Black-headed Gull". "Black-headed Gull" is currently found on both BOU and AOU lists. "Black-headed Gull" is used in the vast majority of UK and European field guides and official lists published over at least the past 3 decades and earlier; and remains in use in modern field guides.


Misleading as to relations: "Common Black-headed Gull" is sometimes used for Larus ridibundus to distinguish it from the (primarily Eastern Palearctic) species Larus ichthyaetus. The latter species' traditional name is "Great Black-headed Gull" (e.g. Gill & Wright - IOC, 2006).  Larus ichthyaetus and Larus ridibundus are rather different birds and are not very closely related. Larus ridibundus is a small two-year gull; Larus ichthyaetus is a four-plumage gull (though completes the sequence to adult plumage in 3 years). Pons et al. (2005) recently proposed placing Larus ichthyaetus with other large, old world, black-headed species in the genus Ichthyaetus; with L. ridibundus in the genus Chroicocephalus. The "Common" naming convention incorrectly suggests L. ichthyaetus and L. ridibundus to be sister species. An alternative and relatively novel name "Pallas' Gull" has been used in more recent publications for L. ichthyaetus (e.g. BOU and Svensson et al.'s Collins field guide - the leading current field guide in use in Europe at present).


Confusing: "Common Gull" is the British name for another species: Larus canus (known in the US, if lumped with the subspecies found there, as "Mew Gull"). Common Gull is also a widespread species in the UK. The words "Common Black-headed" - for example if uttered on a sea watch or whilst surveying a gull flock - would at first instance misleadingly suggest another species; or could alternatively be interpreted as referring to two individuals of different species.


Verbose/Redundant: "Common Black-headed Gull" is a real mouthful. The "Common"-ness of a bird is not a particularly useful field mark - as it depends whether one is in the range of L. ridibundus or L. ichthyaetus. L. ridibundus is certainly not "common" in South America.


Policy: On some other proposals, SACC has followed BOU recommendations for primarily old world species and AOU recommendations for species that also occur in the NACC region. In each case, this would mean using simple "Black-headed".


Conclusion and Recommendation: Use of the "Common" prefix here: (i) does not accord with the vast bulk of Old World literature; (ii) is misleading as to the species' relations; (iii) is verbose English language usage; (iv) is confusing and redundant for field usage; and (v) is inconsistent with SACC treatment of birds occurring in BOU and AOU NACC regions. Beyond seeking to achieve consistency with the IOC, I cannot think of a single good reason to use the "Common" prefix for this species; but there are at least 5 good reasons to use the simpler name. I recommend adopting "Black-headed Gull" ahead of "Common Black-headed Gull" - a YES vote.


Thomas Donegan, September 2007




Comments from Remsen: YES, and it will be great to get rid of this modifier that makes it an awful name. Use of "Pallas's Gull" for ichthyaetus clears the way for simplified name for ridibundus."


Comments from Robbins: "YES. Calling ridibundus as simply Black-headed Gull is an improvement."


Comments from Zimmer: "YES. Common Black-headed Gull" is awkward, uninformative, and unnecessary."