Seabirds are some of the most fascinating creatures on Earth. Over millions of years, these birds have mastered life on the open ocean. Seabirds are an elusive group; it’s hard to study them because they only come ashore to breed.
A seabird is any bird that spends the majority or part of its life out on the open ocean. While the term “seabird” can describe a wide variety of birds, this group is most often used to describe the orders of Procellariiformes and Suliformes. Procellariiformes include petrels, albatrosses, shearwater, and storm-petrels, which are more commonly known as “tubenoses”. Suliformes include cormorants, boobies, gannets, and frigatebirds. Gulls, jaegers, skuas, auks, and penguins are also seabirds.
I recently read The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of the Planet’s Great Ocean Voyagers
by Adam Nicolson. This beautifully-written book explores the lives of 10 species of seabirds. For each species, Nicolson explores not only how these birds live from a scientific standpoint, but how they touch the lives of people in emotional and spiritual ways. I particularly enjoyed reading some of the myths that native cultures tell about these fascinating creatures.
It’s clear that Nicolson loves the subjects he writes about. Adam Nicolson was born in England. During his childhood his father actually bought the Shiant Islands in the Outer Herbrides of Scotland, where Nicolson would watch puffins, fulmars, razorbills, shags, kittiwakes, and other seabirds breed. The Seabird’s Cry offers intimate accounts of the specie’s life, but also reminds us how fragile their lifestyles can be in an ever changing world of climate change.
I learned so many interesting facts in this book, so I wanted to share some of them with you. Below is one fact from each of the 10 species. You’ll just have to find out the rest when you read The Seabird’s Cry. 🙂
- Fulmars were known as the “foul gulls” to the Vikings, since they would vomit the oils from their food as a defense mechanism.
- An adult puffin raising a chick will dive between 600 and 1,150 times per day to get sandeels, sprats, or capelin.
- Kittiwakes are the most populous gull, with approximately 18 million individuals in the Northern Hemisphere.
- Some gull species have black heads instead of white heads. Studies found that gulls with black heads/faces actually scare other gulls, most likely to space out the breeding territory. Therefore, when black-headed gulls mate, they face away from each other to show their white bodies and use other senses during courtship such as smell and touch.
- A Newfoundland study found that “extramarital affairs” were fairly common among guillemots. However, females who had these affairs would typically end up being less successful breeders than males who had affairs.
- Cormorants and shags are most likely the closest in lifestyle and body-type to the first fossilized seabirds from about 100 million years ago.
- Shearwaters, like other “tubenoses” have large olfactory bulb and therefore a strong sense of smell. Phytoplankton, which is eaten by the shearwater’s prey krill, emit dimethyl sulfide (DMS). Young shearwaters are exposed to DMS in the burrow, so they are able to locate krill by smell when they go foraging. Unfortunately, plastics also emit DMS, so seabirds are accidentally eating plastic not because it looks like prey, but smells like prey.
- Gannets regularly fly over 350 miles or more while fishing.
- Razorbills are the living representatives of the largest seabird that ever lived in the Northern Hemisphere, the extinct Great Auk.
- Albatross have a lifespan of 60-80 years depending on the species. (Not from this book, but Wisdom, the 68-year-old albatross, laid an egg in December!)
What’s your favorite seabird? Tell me in the comment section! Mine is the Laysan Albatross.