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Kittiwakes – The Sea Birds

kittiwakes-in-their-nest image
Kittiwakes sometimes build nests on shipwrecks or buildings.

Kittiwakes are simply a type of gull, but don’t you think kittiwake is a more interesting name? These gulls live in coastal areas along North America and Europe. Kittiwakes are white or gray with black wing tips. Some kittiwakes have black legs; others have red.

Kittiwakes Facts For Kids

  • Seabirds from the gull family.
  • Two species: black-legged and red-legged.
  • Found in North Atlantic regions.
  • Nest on cliff ledges.
  • Dive to catch fish.
  • Known for V-shaped tail.
  • Migrate to open sea in winter.
  • Distinct “kitti-wake” call.
  • Live in large colonies.
  • Lifespan: up to 20 years.


Kittiwakes, a unique type of gull, captivate children’s interest due to their intriguing sea-dwelling lifestyle and distinctive characteristics. Unlike their gull counterparts, they predominantly inhabit the sea, retreating to land only for breeding purposes.

Found in the frigid zones of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, they are recognizable by their black legs, ‘V’ shaped tail, and their unmistakable ‘kitti-wake’ call, from which their name originates. Skilled divers, they can adeptly plunge from towering heights into the water to capture their prey. A remarkable aspect of kittiwakes is their strategic nest placement on sheer cliffs’ edges, a defense mechanism to safeguard their eggs and offspring from predators.

Gull species

Kittiwakes, intriguing components of the Gull species, are particularly recognized for their distinctive nesting preferences as they typically choose sheer cliff faces and rocky coastlines as their homes for protection against predators. In contrast to most gulls, they are predominantly pelagic, spending a significant part of their lives in the open sea.

They stand out from their gull relatives by their black legs and wingtips, and their signature ‘kitti-wake’ call. In addition, their resourceful hunting capabilities, diving into the sea to prey on small fish and marine invertebrates, add to their uniqueness. These peculiar traits make Kittiwakes an exceptional subset of the diverse Gull species.

Cliff-nesting habits

Kittiwakes, a unique type of gull, captivate with their unusual cliff-nesting habits. Instead of opting for more common nesting sites, kittiwakes skillfully construct their homes on sheer cliff faces overlooking the ocean, a location that offers them several benefits.

The steep terrain provides a natural deterrent against predators, safeguarding the birds and their eggs. Moreover, the proximity to the ocean grants them easy access to their primary diet, including fish and various sea creatures.

Using materials like seaweed, grass, and mud, they build nests that often serve them for many years. This bird species embodies bravery and resourcefulness as they thrive in such challenging environments to raise their young.

North Atlantic distribution

Native to the North Atlantic region, Kittiwakes, a fascinating species of seabirds from the gull family, are renowned for their unique breeding habits and survival skills. These birds are typically found nesting on cliff edges overlooking the ocean, a strategic location that’s difficult for predators to reach.

Large colonies of Kittiwakes are most commonly observed during the summer months in countries like Norway, Iceland, Canada, and the United Kingdom. During winter, they display their resilience and adaptability by spending their time at sea, often around icy waters.

Their distinctive presence and ability to thrive in the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic underscore their remarkable survival skills.

Migratory patterns

Kittiwakes, captivating avian species known for their intriguing migratory patterns, regularly undertake substantial journeys spanning thousands of miles between seasons. Their migration typically commences post-breeding season, which traditionally takes place on the high cliffs of the northern hemisphere.

Subsequently, they journey southwards, seeking the warmth of southern waters during winter. The phenomenon of ‘site fidelity’ is characteristic of these birds, as they consistently return to their original nesting sites annually.

This impressive migratory journey, demonstrating their substantial strength and endurance, positions kittiwakes among the most fascinating migratory birds globally.

Distinctive calls

Kittiwakes, well-known for their unique and distinctive calls, provide an intriguing topic for children to learn about animal communication. These birds derived their name from their characteristic sharp, shrill ‘kittee-wa-aaake, kitte-wa-aaake’ call, which they mainly use to interact with each other, particularly during the breeding period.

Remarkably, kittiwakes are capable of distinguishing the individual calls of their mates and chicks, demonstrating an impressive complexity in animal communication. This intriguing fact about these birds enables children to gain a better understanding of how animals communicate.

Therefore, if you ever encounter a high-pitched, repetitive bird call near the sea, it could likely be a kittiwake.

Monogamous breeding pairs

Kittiwakes, a category of seagulls, stand out in the avian realm due to their distinctive monogamous breeding behavior, a trait that signifies a lifelong partnership with a single mate, a rarity in the bird world.

This core aspect of their existence facilitates a cooperative spirit between the pair as they collectively construct nests on precarious cliff edges, nurture their eggs, and rear their offspring. This intricate ritual of shared responsibilities between male and female kittiwakes epitomizes teamwork in the animal kingdom and contributes to their fascinating allure.

Marine diet

Kittiwakes, intriguing avian creatures with a diet heavily reliant on marine life, are recognized for their exceptional fishing skills, primarily feeding on small fish and marine invertebrates. These birds exhibit a unique hunting technique in which they dive from significant heights into the water to seize their prey.

Notably, kittiwakes are frequently observed trailing fishing boats to feed on discarded catch. In certain regions, they demonstrate surface-feeding behavior, capturing squid and krill from the water surface. This strong interdependence with marine life positions kittiwakes as vital indicators of health and biodiversity within marine ecosystems.

Colonial nesting sites

Known for their intriguing nesting habits, Kittiwakes are captivating birds that are colonial nesters, implying that they favor constructing their nests in vast colonies. These colonies are typically located on steep cliff sides or human-made structures such as buildings and bridges.

This nesting pattern is a strategic safety measure employed by these birds, as it provides them with protection from predators. Furthermore, it affords them enhanced access to food sources, since information about food locations can be shared within the colony. Therefore, spotting a large cluster of nests on a cliff or structure could very likely signify the presence of Kittiwakes.

Juvenile plumage

Juvenile plumage, the feathers of young kittiwakes before they mature into adulthood, is an engaging phase in the life of these seabirds. In their inaugural year, these birds stand out with a unique plumage that is generally darker and features a black ‘W’ pattern across their wings and back, along with potential black bars on their tail feathers, distinguishing them from the adults.

These dramatic visual markers not only indicate their age but also provide crucial camouflage against predators, contributing to their survival. As they age, the young kittiwakes undergo a molting process that gradually changes their juvenile plumage. Eventually, the dark colors fade away, revealing the white and gray plumage that is characteristic of adult kittiwakes.

Two Kittiwakes Image - Science for Kids All About Kittiwakes
Kittiwakes are white or gray with black wing tips. Some of them have black legs; others have red. These are basic characteristics all about kittiwakes.

Kittiwakes build nests on rocky cliffs during the summer. In the winter, they fly out onto the open seas where they spend the winter swimming and flying. Kittiwakes can drink sea water and are excellent fishermen.

Kittiwakes in their Nest Image
Kittiwakes sometimes build nests on shipwrecks or buildings.

Fun Facts about Kittiwakes for Kids

  • Kittiwakes sometimes build nests on shipwrecks or buildings.
  • Kittiwakes make their nests from mud, seaweed, barnacles and feathers.
  • Kittiwakes gather in colonies.
A Colony of Kittiwakes Image
Kittiwakes gather in colonies.

Kittiwake Vocabulary

  1. Gull: a type of water fowl
  2. Rocky: full of rocks
  3. Shipwrecks: wrecked boats
  4. Barnacles: type of shelled fish
  5. Colony: group

Learn More All About kittiwakes

Have a look at this interesting video of kittiwakes:

A video of a kittiwake’s nesting ritual.

Kittiwake Q&A

Question: What do kittiwakes eat?

Answer: Kittiwakes prefer fish, but they also eat shellfish and insects.


Question: Do kittiwakes build nests together?

Answer: Kittiwakes gather in groups of 100,000 or more birds. The nests are crowded together.


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