13 WHITE Birds With BLACK HEAD (ID Guide With Photos)

Did you recently come across a white bird that had a black head, and want to know what species it was?

Identifying white birds that have a black colored head is not as easy as it might seem, since there are surprisingly many birds in North America that fit this description. 

To help you identify the bird you saw, we’ll cover the most important white birds with black heads in North America.

Types of white birds with black head

What types of white birds have a black head?

There are 13 types of birds that have a white body and black head, which are covered in full detail below.

Laughing Gull

Scientific name: Leucophaeus atricilla

Photo of Laughing Gull in flight

The Laughing Gull is common along the entire East Coast, and can be easily identified by its dark head and its loud call that resembles human laughter. 

Adult Laughing Gulls in summer are predominantly white, with a black head and wingtips, as well as a gray upperside.

Both the bill and the legs are dark red. In contrast to adults, juvenile birds are pale gray brown.

Laughing Gulls are most common close to mud flats and sandy beaches, but these birds also occur away from land, foraging over open water. 

Bonaparte’s Gull

Scientific name: Chroicocephalus philadelphia

Photo of Bonaparte's Gull in flight

Bonaparte’s Gulls are breeding birds of northern Canada, where they nest along the coasts of rivers and lakes. 

These small gulls are largely white, except for a jet black head during the breeding season, as well as black wingtips and a light gray mantle. 

These white birds with black tipped wings can be found throughout the North American continent during migration, and they winter along the east and west coasts, as well as in the caribbean. 

Sabine’s Gull

Scientific name: Xema sabini

Photo of Sabine's Gull in breeding plumage

These slender gulls breed in the Arctic parts of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, where their preferred habitat is marshy tundra.

Adults have a bright white body and a charcoal head, contrasting with the yellow tip of their beak.

These gulls are most often observed on migration along the west coast of North America, as they make their way to their wintering grounds along the pacific coast of Central America.

Franklin’s Gull

Scientific name: Leucophaeus pipixcan

Photo of Franklin's Gull in flight

These small gulls breed in the marshlands of northern North America.

They are also commonly encountered in the United States while migrating from their breeding grounds to their wintering grounds in South America. 

Adults in breeding plumage have a large white body, with a light gray mantle and a black head, as well as black-tipped wings. 

Immature birds and nonbreeding adults lose most of their ebony head feathers, except for a patch behind their eyes.

Black-headed Gull

Scientific name: Chroicocephalus ridibundus

Photo of Black-headed Gull

While the Black-headed Gull is not a breeding bird of North America, it occurs as a regular vagrant in eastern North America.

Black-headed Gulls are common breeding birds in Eurasia, and when they are spotted in North America, they are usually in mixed flocks with Bonaparte’s Gulls along the northern Atlantic coast of Canada and the USA.

Similar to other gulls with black plumage on their head, these gulls only have a dark hood during the breeding season.

Common Tern

Scientific name: Sterna hirundo

Photo of Common Tern in breeding plumage

As implied by its name, the Common Tern is the most common tern species breeding in North America. 

These terns breed along the coasts of the northern Atlantic, as well as the Great Lakes, and on smaller freshwater lakes throughout most of Canada.

They are long-distance migratory birds, and winter in Central and South America. A few Common Terns also winter along the Gulf Coast.

Forster’s Tern

Scientific name: Sterna forsteri

Photo of Forster's Tern

The Forster’s Tern is a medium sized white tern that is a common breeding bird in the northern US, and winters along the coast of southern states. 

Adult birds are almost entirely white, except for their gray mantle and midnight black cap. Their orange beak has a black tip.

In its non-breeding plumage, it loses most of its black cap, but can be identified by a characteristic comma shaped black eye patch.

Sandwich Tern

Scientific name: Thalasseus sandvicensis

Photo of two Sandwich Terns

This medium-sized tern is a scarce breeding bird along the beaches of the Gulf Coast, and is also found along the Atlantic coast and Caribbean outside of the breeding season.

Sandwich Terns don’t occur inland, and your best bet to spot one is along the shore, where they hunt alone or in small groups, plunging into the water to catch small fish.

These terns are often observed in mixed flocks with other tern species, and are best recognized by their crest, and yellow-tipped beak.

Caspian Tern

Scientific name: Hydroprogne caspia

Photo of Caspian Tern

The Caspian tern is the largest tern species in the world. It is a breeding bird of northern North America, as well as a winter visitor in Florida, California, and the Gulf Coast.

This diving bird superficially resembles the Forster’s Tern, but it is a much larger bird and has a thicker bill, broader wings, and a less forked tail.

Also, during winter the Caspian Tern doesn’t lose its black cap completely, but always retains a streaked, dark crown.

The Caspian Tern breeds in freshwater habitats in Canada and northern USA, and winters in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Royal Tern

Scientific name: Sterna maxima

Photo of Royal Tern adult in breeding plumage

The Royal Tern is a breeding bird along the northern East Coast, and during the winter, Royal Terns are also found far south of their breeding grounds.

During the cold months, these beautiful shorebirds can be seen along the entire Gulf Coast, where they hunt small fish by plunging head-first into the water.

Gull-billed Tern

Scientific name: Gelochelidon nilotica

Photo of Gull-billed Tern adult feeding its young

As already suggested by their name, Gull-billed Terns can be recognized by their thicker and stronger beak compared to other tern species.

Gull-billed Terns are breeding birds of beaches and salt marshes along the Florida Gulf Coast and Atlantic Coast.

These terns have a white body, gray mantle, and black cap. Unlike other terns, they don’t plunge into the water to catch fish, but instead catch insects in the air.

Roseate Tern

Scientific name: Sterna dougallii

Photo of Roseate Tern adult in breeding plumage

These elegant terns are found along the northern Atlantic coast of the United States, as well as in the Caribbean and the southern tip of Florida.

Their breeding plumage is bright white, contrasting with a black cap and a subtle rosy hue on their chest.

In the Florida Keys, some Roseate Terns nest on the roofs of houses, presenting a great opportunity to observe them up close during the breeding season. 

Least Tern

Scientific name: Sternula antillarum

Photo of Least Tern adult in breeding plumage

As suggested by its name, the Least Tern is the smallest tern species found in North America.

It is most commonly found breeding along the coasts of the United States, as well as on large inland river systems, where they nest on sandy islands.

Adults in breeding plumage are largely white, except for a black head with a white forehead, and a bright yellow bill. They winter in the Caribbean and along the coasts of South America.

Final remarks

In summary, here are the 13 types of white colored birds with black head:

  • Laughing Gull
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Sabine’s Gull
  • Franklin’s Gull
  • Black-headed Gull
  • Common Tern
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Sandwich Tern
  • Caspian Tern
  • Royal Tern
  • Gull-billed Tern
  • Roseate Tern
  • Least Tern

If you’ve spotted one of these birds while bird watching, hopefully this ID guide will help you identify it quickly and easily.

And if you enjoyed this article, check out our guide to the types of small black and white birds.