Rissa brevirostris 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Aves Charadriiformes Laridae

Scientific Name: Rissa brevirostris (Bruch, 1853)
Common Name(s):
English Red-legged Kittiwake
Taxonomic Source(s): del Hoyo, J., Collar, N.J., Christie, D.A., Elliott, A. and Fishpool, L.D.C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Non-passerines. Lynx Edicions BirdLife International, Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge, UK.
Identification information: 35-39 cm. Small gull. Adults mostly white, but dark grey upperwing and back. Black tips to outer primaries. Scarlet legs. Short bill and steep forehead give distinctive profile. Juvenile and first winter birds have more black on outer primaries and primary coverts, extensive white on inner primaries and secondaries. Similar spp. Black-legged Kittiwake R. tridactyla is lighter grey on upperwing and back, has longer bill and black legs. However, R. tridactyla can very rarely have reddish-orange legs. Immature R. tridactyla has carpal bar and tail-band.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A4ac ver 3.1
Year Published: 2017
Date Assessed: 2017-10-01
Assessor(s): BirdLife International
Reviewer(s): Symes, A.
Contributor(s): Artukhin, Y., Drew, G., Orben, R., Renner, H., Romano, M. & Williams, J.
Facilitator/Compiler(s): Benstead, P., Butchart, S., Gilroy, J., Pilgrim, J., Taylor, J., Symes, A., Ashpole, J, Westrip, J., Moreno, R.
This species underwent a rapid historical decline, but there is evidence that suggests that the population has now recovered, and potentially stabilised.

Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:Red-legged Kittiwake Rissa brevirostris occurs throughout the Bering Sea, and ranges across the North Pacific Ocean (including the Northern Gulf of Alaska) and the Sea of Okhotsk (USGS-ASC 2015). Vagrants have been noted along the Pacific Coast of Japan and along the West coast of the United States (Byrd and Williams 1993, Cole et al. 2006, Brazil 2009).

Nearly the entire global population breeds in the Bering Sea, on the Pribilof (St. Paul, St. George and Otter), Bogoslof (Bogoslof and Fire) and Buldir (Buldir, Outer Rock, Middle Rock) islands, USA, and the Commander Islands (Arij Kamen, Toporkov, Bering and Mednyi), Russia (Byrd and Williams 1993, Byrd et al. 1997). In addition, smaller colonies on Unalga, Koniuji, Amak, and Chagulak islands (Aleutians, USA) were discovered during the 1990s and early 2000s (Byrd et al. 2004; Gibson and Byrd 2007).

Although their at-sea distribution is poorly studied, recent tracking efforts have shed new light into the at-sea habitat use of the species. Chick-rearing birds GPS tracked from St. George Island forage to the southwest of the island in ocean waters (>1,000 m), with occasional trips over the Bering Sea shelf (Kokubun et al. 2015). Geolocation tracking from St. George Island has revealed that the majority of birds disperse after breeding to the northern Bering Sea (Orben et al. 2015). Hot spots of non-breeding distribution in the Bering Sea occur along the Russian coast in the Gulf of Anadyr and the Karaginsky Gulf (Orben et al. 2015). Birds also winter along the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, and in the western subarctic gyre (Orben et al. 2015, Orben et al. unpublished data).

Countries occurrence:
Canada; Russian Federation (Eastern Asian Russia); United States
Additional data:
Estimated area of occupancy (AOO) - km2:1740Continuing decline in area of occupancy (AOO):Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in area of occupancy (AOO):NoEstimated extent of occurrence (EOO) - km2:1320000
Continuing decline in extent of occurrence (EOO):UnknownExtreme fluctuations in extent of occurrence (EOO):No
Number of Locations:13Continuing decline in number of locations:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in the number of locations:No
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


The Pribilof Islands account for >82% of the breeding population, with an estimated 235,624 breeding birds at St. George Island (per Goyert et al. 2017), 1,400 birds at St. Paul Island, and 172 at Otter Island (Thomson et al. 2014). The estimate for St. George is derived from a nest census conducted in 1995 while the estimates for St. Paul and Otter islands were taken from the most recent (2014) direct count of all attending birds conducted by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

The Commander Islands contain the only known Red-leggged Kittiwake colonies outside of the United States. These islands contain approximately 32,300 breeding birds (Vyatkin and Artyukhin 1994; del Hoyo et al. 1996; Artukhin 1999), which is approximately 14% of the breeding population. The colonies on Bering Island support by far the largest portion of the breeding birds of the Commander Islands, with an estimated 30,600 breeding birds in 1993 (Vyatkin and Artyukhin 1994). Recent counts for Bering Island and the other colonies in the Commander Islands group are not available. 

In the Aleutian Islands, Buldir Island (and its associated offshore rocks [Outer and Middle rocks]) is the largest colony with an estimated 8,605 breeding birds (per Goyert et al. 2017). Bogoslof Island and nearby Fire Island have a combined total of approximately 900 birds (Byrd et al. 2001). The remaining small colonies in the Aleutian Islands at Amak, Unalga, Koniuji and Chagulak islands contain fewer than 20 birds each (Byrd et al. 1997; Byrd et al. 2004) and combined with Bogoslof Island account for <1% of the population.

Overall the population size in Alaska has bee estimated at 247,300 breeding adults (Goyert et al. 2017), along with the population size of 32,300 in the Commander Islands, Russia; which gives a global population size estimate of 279,600 mature individuals, placed here in the range 100,000-499,999 mature individuals.

Trend Justification:  From the mid-1970s to mid-1990s, the known population declined by >40%. Most of this decline was on the Pribilof island of St. George where a precipitous (>50%) decline in breeding numbers occurred (Byrd and Williams 1993). The decline on St. George continued through the early 1990s but subsequently has shown recovery (Byrd et al. 2008, Jason and Romano 2017). The small population on St. Paul Island declined by >80% from the mid-1970s through 2008 (Thomson et al. 2014), though since 2008, the population appears to have stabilised (M. Romano in litt. 2016). There is some evidence of a slight decline on the Commander Islands, but no counts are available prior to the late 1980s and it is unclear whether this was a trend or just interannual fluctuations (Byrd et al. 1997). No recent trend information is available for any of the Commander Islands. Of the remaining small colonies (all <5% of the population) the number of breeding birds at Buldir Island may have increased by as much as 55% between 1992 and 2014, and the number of breeding birds may have increased at Bogoslof Island in the mid-1990s (Byrd et al. 1997). Therefore, based on this evidence the decline over the past 3 generations (c.39 years) likely no longer meets the threshold for Vulnerable. Goyert et al. (2017), however, state that there have been recent declines in the species. With this uncertainty, the past and ongoing population reduction is very tentatively retained in the range 30-49% over 3 generations, though with further evidence of population trends, this precautionary assessment will require revision.
Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Number of mature individuals:100000-499999Continuing decline of mature individuals:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations:NoPopulation severely fragmented:No
No. of subpopulations:2-100Continuing decline in subpopulations:Unknown
Extreme fluctuations in subpopulations:NoAll individuals in one subpopulation:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:This species nests on remote oceanic islands in the Bering Sea. Nesting colonies occur on ledges of vertical sea cliffs up to 300 m high (Hickey and Craighead 1977).  The species nests in dense aggregations often in the vicinity of other cliff nesting species, including the congeneric Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla).

The Red-legged Kittiwake forages in surface waters within the top 0.5 m and feeds on small fish (e.g. lampfish, juvenile walleye pollock and other gadids), squid and marine invertebrates by pursuit diving (Byrd and Williams 1993). Birds arrive at nesting colonies in April and leave around September (Byrd and Williams 1993, Orben et al. 2015).

Systems:Terrestrial; Marine
Continuing decline in area, extent and/or quality of habitat:Yes
Generation Length (years):12.9
Movement patterns:Full Migrant
Congregatory:Congregatory (and dispersive)

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s): The reasons for the population decline remain unclear, but it has been attributed to a reduction in food supply resulting from excessive commercial fishing (Byrd and Williams 1993). Shifts in the distribution of prey fish species, resulting from climate change and rising sea temperatures, may have also contributed to declines (Anon 2006). The recent construction and ongoing improvements of harbour facilities in the Pribilof Islands considerably increases the chances of the accidental introduction of rats which would pose a serious threat (Byrd and Williams 1993)In addition, potential introduction of rats from shipwrecks (i.e. a “rat spill”) poses a serious threat to the species. The species is potentially threatened by climate change because it has a geographically bounded distribution: its global distribution is restricted to within c.10o latitude from the polar edge of continent and within which 20-50% of current vegetation type is projected to disappear under doubling of CO2 levels (Birdlife International unpublished data). The decline on St Paul may have been partly caused by subsistence offtake (Byrd and Williams 1993). Given the large contribution to the population from a very small number of colonies (i.e. St. George, Bering, and Buldir islands) the species is vulnerable to oil spills and the potential mortality associated with a spill event. Ship traffic in the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea is increasing and projected to continue increasing in the foreseeable future.

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions: Conservation Actions Underway
It is a protected species in both the USA and Russia. All known red-legged kittiwake colonies in the USA are protected as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All colonies within the Commander Islands occur within the Commander Islands Nature and Biosphere Reserve. A rat prevention programme conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the Tribal Governments of St. Paul and St. George is underway in the Pribilof Islands (Byrd and Williams 1993).

Conservation Actions Proposed
Monitor breeding populations throughout the range to assess population trends, and continue and expand monitoring of vital demographic rates (e.g. productivity, adult survival, juvenile recruitment) in order to refine population models. Characterise the diet of Red-legged Kittiwakes at multiple colonies. Investigate the link between ocean/climate conditions and the availability of forage species at the major colonies. Assess the efficacy of rat prevention measures at breeding colonies and develop and maintain infrastructure to respond to potential rat introductions (via shipwreck etc.) at remote breeding sites. Continue tracking studies and expand to additional colonies (e.g. Buldir, Bering, and Bogoslof islands) to characterize winter distribution and foraging distribution during the breeding season. Assess the impact of commercial fishing, and if warranted establish the proposed buffer zone around the Pribilof Islands in which trawl fishing would be prohibited (Lensink 1984).

Citation: BirdLife International. 2017. Rissa brevirostris. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22694502A118920892. . Downloaded on 22 May 2018.
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