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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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.
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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.
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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.
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Gannet, a seabird that breeds along rocky coasts. Gannets are found in many places around the world, some species living in cold regions, others in tropical and subtropical climates. The northern species go south in winter.
Gannets are often seen far out at sea, and seldom come to land except during storms and to breed. They feed on fish, which they catch by diving into the water, sometimes from a great height; a network of air sacs under the skin helps cushion the impact of the dive. Gannets breed in large colonies, building nests of seaweed and grass on rocky cliffs. There are one or two eggs, greenish-blue and covered with a chalky substance, which hatch in about six weeks.
The northern gannet breeds in great numbers on the west coasts of the British Isles, and on the eastern North American coast south to Nova Scotia. It is also found in Greenland and Iceland. It is the largest gannet, about 36 inches (90 cm) long with a wingspread of up to 6 feet (1.8 m). It is white with black-tipped wings. The bill is large and pointed, and the tail is wedge-shaped. The cape gannet of South Africa and the Australian gannet are similar to the northern gannet, but are slightly smaller. The booby, also a gannet, is smaller still.
The northern gannet is Sula bassanus; cape, S. capensis; Australian, S. serrator. Gannets belong to the family Sulidae.
Frigate Bird, or Man-o’-War Bird, a large, long-winged seabird related to the pelicans. There are five living species. All, like the sailing ships after which they were named, are noted for speed and aggressiveness. They are found on tropical islands and along warm coasts bordering the South Atlantic and Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. One species is found only on Ascension Island.The magnificent frigate bird is the largest species. It grows to 40 inches (1 m) in length, including its 17-inch (43-cm) deeply forked tail, and may have a wingspread of 7 feet (2.1 m). Its five-inch (13-cm) bill is sharply hooked at the tip. The male is black, glossed with green, but its inflatable throat pouch becomes deep red or brilliant orange during the mating season. The female, larger than her mate, is brown with white underparts. The magnificent frigate bird is sometimes seen along the coasts of Louisiana and southern Florida, but does not nest there.In spite of their superior flying ability, frigate birds rarely venture more than 75 miles (120 km) from shore. They seldom enter the water. They feed on flying fish, jellyfish, and other marine animals they catch in their bills at the ocean surface. They are noted for their habit of attacking smaller birds such as gannets and terns, forcing them to disgorge food, which the frigate birds snap up in mid-air.Frigate birds nest in colonies on uninhabited islands. Their short, weak legs make them awkward on land. The female lays a single white egg in an untidy nest of sticks set between rocks or in low bushes. The parents take turns guarding the egg, and later, the nestling, because other frigate birds might eat the egg or nestling.
Frigate birds make up the family Fregatidae. The magnificent frigate bird is Fregata magnificens; the Ascension Island species, F. aquila; the smallest frigate bird, F. ariel.