Petrel, an ocean bird belonging to any one of three families. There are about 50 species of petrels, widely distributed around the world. Several species nest in United States coastal areas. Petrels range in length from 6 to 38 inches (15 to 97 cm). They are sooty black or dark gray above and pale gray or white below. A few species of white petrels inhabit antarctic regions.
Storm petrels often skim the water when flying.
Petrels have hooked bills and tubular nostrils. Some species have long, pointed wings, while others have short wings. The legs of some species are short and stout, but others have long, thin legs that are so weak the birds use their wings to help support them on land. Petrels have webbed feet. Most species have short tails.
Petrels stay at sea except at nesting time, when they gather in flocks on rocky coasts and islands. They dig burrows for their nests, or lay their eggs in crevices between rocks. The nests may be lined with sticks or leaves. The female lays one white egg, and takes turns with the male in incubating it. Petrels feed on algae, fish, squid, and small crustaceans such as shrimps. Some species eat smaller birds and their eggs. A number of species follow ships to feed on refuse.
Storm petrels are so named because of the belief that their presence means that a storm is coming. They are also called Mother Carey’s chickens, a name of uncertain origin. These are the smallest petrels, ranging from 6 to 10 inches (15 to 25 cm) in length. Storm petrels fly close to the water when feeding, patting the surface with their feet and giving an appearance of walking on water. Among the species that nest in the United States is Wilson’s storm petrel, a ship follower.