North York Moors

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Kittiwake with chick on nestKittiwake with chick on nest
Scientific name

Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). 


Kittiwakes spend much of their time at sea, coming ashore to breed from February until August and building their nests on the sides of steep coastal cliffs.


Kittiwakes are similar to common gulls, but are smaller with black legs and a yellow bill. Their claws are longer and sharper than other gulls, which gives them a firm footing on the narrow ledges where they build their nests. They have dark eyes and the inside of their mouth is bright red. They are white with a grey back and, when flying, their black wing tips are clearly visible. Young kittiwakes have black stripes on their wings and a black bar along the back of their necks.


Kittiwakes eat small fish or the remains of fish, catching them from the surface of the sea as they fly. They also eat small squid, molluscs, shrimps and worms.

They are not usually a noisy bird, but at their breeding colonies they make a loud cry which sounds like ‘kitt-ee-wake’, which is how they got their name. Both the male and female birds build a cup-shaped nest using seaweed, moss and other bits of plants, and they stick everything together with their droppings.

Between May and June the female lays 2 or 3 eggs which are either blue-grey or brownish in colour with dark splotches. Both parents take turns to sit on the nest and keep the eggs warm for about 28 days, until the chicks start to hatch. 

The chicks are a creamy white colour with grey-brown upper parts. They stay in the nest and are fed by both parents for 40-45 days until they are strong enough to fly. A special adaptation of kittiwakes is that the chicks stay in the nest until they can fly; if they tried to leave too early they would fall from the cliffs. 

The best time of year to see kittiwakes is during the breeding season in spring and summer. They can sometimes be seen offshore between August and October.


Since they were given legal protection, the population of kittiwakes has increased over the last century to nearly half a million breeding pairs in Britain. The birds were previously killed for sport and also for their feathers, which were used to decorate the hats of Victorian ladies.

The main threat to the kittiwake population nowadays is lack of food, due to over-fishing in some sea areas.