Seabirds is a generic term literally for birds that live and feed near or in the sea. Seabirds commonly include terns, gulls, auks and even penguins.


Albatross, a seabird. Of the 13 species, most nest in the Southern Hemisphere, although three species are found north of the Equator. Albatrosses have webbed feet and large, hooked bills. Most species are white with black wings and tail. Their long, tapered wings are adapted to gliding on updrafts of air from oceanic winds. The wingspan of most species ranges from 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 m), although the wings are only 9 inches (23 cm) wide. Albatrosses range from 28 to 54 inches (71 to 137 cm) in length, and the larger species weigh more than 20 pounds (9 kg).

Albatrosses live almost their entire lives at sea, coming to land only to nest. They breed on small islands, living in colonies of up to 50,000 individuals. During the breeding season, the male performs an elaborate courtship dance. The female lays one white, brown-speckled egg in a shallow nest on the ground. Both parents incubate the egg for 9 to 10 weeks, until it hatches. The young remains in the nest until it can fly, about six months later. Adult albatrosses feed on fish, crustaceans, and squid, and often follow ships, feeding on discarded food. Parents feed their young by regurgitating previously digested food into their mouths.

Sailors often refer to albatrosses as “gooney birds” because of their disregard of danger. They have long had a taboo against killing albatrosses. In his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells of the misfortunes that befell a ship after a sailor defied this superstition and killed an albatross.

The wandering albatross, a species of the South Pacific, is the largest species of albatross. It has a wingspan of nearly 12 feet (3.7 m), the largest of any living bird. It is named for its ability to cover vast distances by riding oceanic winds. The black-footed albatross is a species of the North Pacific. It is dark gray to tan with white markings on the head, wings, and abdomen.

Albatrosses make up the family Diomedeidae. The wandering albatross is Diomedea exulans; black-footed, D. nigripes.

Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel, an ocean bird that nests only in Bermuda. Like other petrels, the bird lives at sea for seven or eight months, returning to shore to nest in burrows and raise its young. The bird’s plumage is brown with white markings.

During a famine in Bermuda, 1609–21, great numbers of cahows were slaughtered for food. The species was long thought to be extinct, but in 1951 a number of cahows were found living on islets off Bermuda. The cahow is an endangered species.

The cahow is Pterodroma cahow of the shearwater family, Procellariidae.

Fulmar, a gull-like ocean bird distinguished by its stiff-winged, gliding flight. It has a stubby yellow bill with tubelike nostrils. Fulmars are 17 to 20 inches (43 to 51 cm) long. Most are white with pale gray wings, tails, and backs. The fulmar feeds on fish, squid, crustaceans, and ships’ refuse. It comes to land only to breed. The female lays one white egg in a shallow depression on a rocky cliff. The fulmar’s range extends from the Arctic Ocean south to Newfoundland and the British Isles. Some fulmars winter off the coast of New Jersey.

The fulmar is Fulmarus glacialis of the shearwater family, Procellariidae.

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 petrelsStorm 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.


Shearwater, the common name of a family of birds; also the common name of a genus of the family. Members of this genus are sometimes referred to collectively as the “true shearwaters.” The family, with a total of more than 50 species, includes the fulmars and certain species of petrels as well as the true shearwaters.

Birds of this family are drab colored, with sooty gray, brown, or black upper parts and generally white underparts. They have short legs, webbed feet, and large hooked beaks with tubular nostrils. Shearwaters are usually about 15 to 25 inches (38–64 cm) in length, with long pointed wings that span 2 to 2 1/2 feet (60–75 cm) from tip to tip.

Shearwaters are found on all the unfrozen oceans of the world. When a steady wind blows, they will glide with it for more than one mile (1.6 km), just skimming the surface of the water. They feed chiefly on small marine animals. Some feed while floating on the water’s surface; others perform shallow dives in search of food. Shearwaters come to land only to nest, returning to the shores or offshore islands where they were reared. One chalky white egg is laid in the nest, built in a burrow in the ground or in a rock crevice.

In some countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, several species of the true shearwaters are called muttonbirds because they are used for food. The sooty shearwater of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is a muttonbird. It annually breeds on land in the Southern Hemisphere and each spring and summer migrates to the subarctic waters of the Northern Hemisphere.

The shearwater family is Procellariidae; the shearwater genus is Puffinus. The sooty water is P. griseus


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