Seabirds (also known as marine birds) are birds that are adapted to
life within the marine environment. While seabirds vary greatly in
lifestyle, behaviour and physiology, they often exhibit striking
convergent evolution, as the same environmental problems and feeding
niches have resulted in similar adaptations. The first seabirds
evolved in the
Cretaceous period, and modern seabird families emerged
in the Paleogene.
In general, seabirds live longer, breed later and have fewer young
than other birds do, but they invest a great deal of time in their
young. Most species nest in colonies, which can vary in size from a
few dozen birds to millions. Many species are famous for undertaking
long annual migrations, crossing the equator or circumnavigating the
Earth in some cases. They feed both at the ocean's surface and below
it, and even feed on each other. Seabirds can be highly pelagic,
coastal, or in some cases spend a part of the year away from the sea
Seabirds and humans have a long history together: they have provided
food to hunters, guided fishermen to fishing stocks and led sailors to
land. Many species are currently threatened by human activities, and
conservation efforts are under way.
1 Classification of seabirds
Evolution and fossil record
3.1 Adaptations to life at sea
3.2 Diet and feeding
3.2.1 Surface feeding
3.2.2 Pursuit diving
3.2.3 Plunge diving
3.2.4 Kleptoparasitism, scavenging and predation
3.3 Life history
3.4 Breeding and colonies
3.6 Away from the sea
4 Relationship with humans
4.1 Seabirds and fisheries
4.3 Other threats
4.5 Role in culture
7 External links
Classification of seabirds
There exists no single definition of which groups, families and
species are seabirds, and most definitions are in some way arbitrary.
In the words of two seabird scientists, "The one common characteristic
that all seabirds share is that they feed in saltwater; but, as seems
to be true with any statement in biology, some do not." However, by
convention all of the
Sphenisciformes and Procellariiformes, all of
Pelecaniformes except the darters, and some of the Charadriiformes
(the skuas, gulls, terns, auks and skimmers) are classified as
seabirds. The phalaropes are usually included as well, since although
they are waders ("shorebirds" in North America), two of the three
species are oceanic for nine months of the year, crossing the equator
to feed pelagically.
Loons and grebes, which nest on lakes but winter at sea, are usually
categorized as water birds, not seabirds. Although there are a number
of sea ducks in the family
Anatidae that are truly marine in the
winter, by convention they are usually excluded from the seabird
grouping. Many waders (or shorebirds) and herons are also highly
marine, living on the sea's edge (coast), but are also not treated as
Evolution and fossil record
Seabirds, by virtue of living in a geologically depositional
environment (that is, in the sea where sediments are readily laid
down), are well represented in the fossil record. They are first
known to occur in the
Cretaceous period, the earliest being the
Hesperornithiformes, like Hesperornis regalis, a flightless loon-like
seabird that could dive in a fashion similar to grebes and loons
(using its feet to move underwater) but had a beak filled with
Cretaceous seabird Hesperornis
While Hesperornis is not thought to have left descendants, the
earliest modern seabirds also occurred in the Cretaceous, with a
species called Tytthostonyx glauconiticus, which seems allied to the
Procellariiformes and Pelecaniformes. In the
Paleogene the seas were
dominated by early Procellariidae, giant penguins and two extinct
Pelagornithidae and the
Plotopteridae (a group of large
seabirds that looked like the penguins). Modern genera began their
wide radiation in the Miocene, although the genus
Manx shearwater and sooty shearwater) might date back
to the Oligocene. The highest diversity of seabirds apparently
existed during the Late
Miocene and the Pliocene. At the end of the
latter, the oceanic food web had undergone a period of upheaval due to
extinction of considerable numbers of marine species; subsequently,
the spread of marine mammals seems to have prevented seabirds from
reaching their erstwhile diversity.
Adaptations to life at sea
Seabirds have made numerous adaptations to living on and feeding in
Wing morphology has been shaped by the niche an individual
species or family has evolved, so that looking at a wing's shape and
loading can tell a scientist about its life feeding behaviour. Longer
wings and low wing loading are typical of more pelagic species, while
diving species have shorter wings.
Species such as the wandering
albatross, which forage over huge areas of sea, have a reduced
capacity for powered flight and are dependent on a type of gliding
called dynamic soaring (where the wind deflected by waves provides
lift) as well as slope soaring. Seabirds also almost always have
webbed feet, to aid movement on the surface as well as assisting
diving in some species. The
Procellariiformes are unusual among birds
in having a strong sense of smell, which is used to find widely
distributed food in a vast ocean, and possibly to locate their
Salt glands are used by seabirds to deal with the salt they ingest by
drinking and feeding (particularly on crustaceans), and to help them
osmoregulate. The excretions from these glands (which are
positioned in the head of the birds, emerging from the nasal cavity)
are almost pure sodium chloride.
Cormorants, like this double-crested cormorant, have plumage that is
partly wettable. This functional adaptation balances the competing
requirement for thermoregulation against that of the need to reduce
With the exception of the cormorants and some terns, and in common
with most other birds, all seabirds have waterproof plumage. However,
compared to land birds, they have far more feathers protecting their
bodies. This dense plumage is better able to protect the bird from
getting wet, and cold is kept out by a dense layer of down feathers.
The cormorants possess a layer of unique feathers that retain a
smaller layer of air (compared to other diving birds) but otherwise
soak up water. This allows them to swim without fighting the
buoyancy that retaining air in the feathers causes, yet retain enough
air to prevent the bird losing excessive heat through contact with
The plumage of most seabirds is less colourful than that of land
birds, restricted in the main to variations of black, white or
grey. A few species sport colourful plumes (such as the tropicbirds
and some penguins), but most of the colour in seabirds appears in the
bills and legs. The plumage of seabirds is thought in many cases to be
for camouflage, both defensive (the colour of US Navy battleships is
the same as that of Antarctic prions, and in both cases it reduces
visibility at sea) and aggressive (the white underside possessed by
many seabirds helps hide them from prey below). The usually black wing
tips help prevent wear, as they contain melanins to make them black
that helps the feathers resist abrasion.
Diet and feeding
Seabirds evolved to exploit different food resources in the world's
seas and oceans, and to a great extent, their physiology and behaviour
have been shaped by their diet. These evolutionary forces have often
caused species in different families and even orders to evolve similar
strategies and adaptations to the same problems, leading to remarkable
convergent evolution, such as that between auks and penguins. There
are four basic feeding strategies, or ecological guilds, for feeding
at sea: surface feeding, pursuit diving, plunge diving and predation
of higher vertebrates; within these guilds there are multiple
variations on the theme.
Many seabirds feed on the ocean's surface, as the action of marine
currents often concentrates food such as krill, forage fish, squid or
other prey items within reach of a dipped head.
Wilson's storm petrels pattering on the water's surface
Surface feeding itself can be broken up into two different approaches,
surface feeding while flying (for example as practiced by gadfly
petrels, frigatebirds and storm petrels), and surface feeding while
swimming (examples of which are practiced by fulmars, gulls, many of
the shearwaters and gadfly petrels). Surface feeders in flight include
some of the most acrobatic of seabirds, which either snatch morsels
from the water (as do frigate-birds and some terns), or "walk",
pattering and hovering on the water's surface, as some of the
storm-petrels do. Many of these do not ever land in the water, and
some, such as the frigatebirds, have difficulty getting airborne again
should they do so. Another seabird family that does not land while
feeding is the skimmer, which has a unique fishing method: flying
along the surface with the lower mandible in the water—this shuts
automatically when the bill touches something in the water. The
skimmer's bill reflects its unusual lifestyle, with the lower mandible
uniquely being longer than the upper one.
Surface feeders that swim often have unique bills as well, adapted for
their specific prey. Prions have special bills with filters called
lamellae to filter out plankton from mouthfuls of water, and many
albatrosses and petrels have hooked bills to snatch fast-moving prey.
Gulls have more generalised bills that reflect their more
The chinstrap penguin is a highly streamlined pursuit diver.
Pursuit diving exerts greater pressures (both evolutionary and
physiological) on seabirds, but the reward is a greater area in which
to feed than is available to surface feeders. Propulsion underwater
can be provided by wings (as used by penguins, auks, diving petrels
and some other species of petrel) or feet (as used by cormorants,
grebes, loons and several types of fish-eating ducks). Wing-propelled
divers are generally faster than foot-propelled divers. In both
cases, the use of wings or feet for diving has limited their utility
in other situations: loons and grebes walk with extreme difficulty (if
at all), penguins cannot fly, and auks have sacrificed flight
efficiency in favour of underwater diving. For example, the razorbill
Atlantic auk) requires 64% more energy to fly than a petrel of
equivalent size. Many shearwaters are intermediate between the
two, having longer wings than typical wing-propelled divers but
heavier wing loadings than the other surface-feeding procellariids,
leaving them capable of diving to considerable depths while still
being efficient long-distance travellers. The deepest diving exhibited
by shearwaters is found in the short-tailed shearwater, which has been
recorded diving below 70 m. Some albatross species are also
capable of limited diving, with light-mantled sooty albatrosses
holding the record at 12 m. Of all the wing-propelled pursuit
divers, the most efficient in the air are the albatrosses, and they
are also the poorest divers. This is the dominant guild in polar and
subpolar environments, as it is energetically inefficient in warmer
waters. With their poor flying ability, many wing-propelled pursuit
divers are more limited in their foraging range than other guilds,
especially during the breeding season when hungry chicks need regular
Gannets, boobies, tropicbirds, some terns and brown pelicans all
engage in plunge diving, taking fast moving prey by diving into the
water from flight. Plunge diving allows birds to use the energy from
the momentum of the dive to combat natural buoyancy (caused by air
trapped in plumage), and thus uses less energy than the dedicated
pursuit divers, allowing them to utilise more widely distributed food
resources, for example, in impoverished tropical seas. In general,
this is the most specialised method of hunting employed by seabirds;
other non-specialists (such as gulls and skuas) may employ it but do
so with less skill and from lower heights. In brown pelicans the
skills of plunge diving take several years to fully develop—once
mature, they can dive from 20 m (70 ft) above the water's
surface, shifting the body before impact to avoid injury. It has
been suggested that plunge divers are restricted in their hunting
grounds to clear waters that afford a view of their prey from the
air, and while they are the dominant guild in the tropics, the
link between plunge diving and water clarity is inconclusive. Some
plunge divers (as well as some surface feeders) are dependent on
dolphins and tuna to push shoaling fish up towards the surface.
Kleptoparasitism, scavenging and predation
This catch-all category refers to other seabird strategies that
involve the next trophic level up. Kleptoparasites are seabirds that
make a part of their living stealing food of other seabirds. Most
famously, frigatebirds and skuas engage in this behaviour, although
gulls, terns and other species will steal food opportunistically.
The nocturnal nesting behaviour of some seabirds has been interpreted
as arising due to pressure from this aerial piracy.
Kleptoparasitism is not thought to play a significant part of the diet
of any species, and is instead a supplement to food obtained by
hunting. A study of great frigatebirds stealing from masked boobies
estimated that the frigatebirds could at most obtain 40% of the food
they needed, and on average obtained only 5%. Many species of gull
will feed on seabird and sea mammal carrion when the opportunity
arises, as will giant petrels. Some species of albatross also engage
in scavenging: an analysis of regurgitated squid beaks has shown that
many of the squid eaten are too large to have been caught alive, and
include mid-water species likely to be beyond the reach of
albatrosses. Some species will also feed on other seabirds; for
example, gulls, skuas and pelicans will often take eggs, chicks and
even small adult seabirds from nesting colonies, while the giant
petrels can kill prey up to the size of small penguins and seal
Seabirds' life histories are dramatically different from those of land
birds. In general, they are K-selected, live much longer (anywhere
between twenty and sixty years), delay breeding for longer (for up to
ten years), and invest more effort into fewer young. Most
species will only have one clutch a year, unless they lose the first
(with a few exceptions, like the Cassin's auklet), and many
species (like the tubenoses and sulids), only one egg a year.
Northern gannet pair "billing" during courtship; like all seabirds
except the phalaropes they maintain a pair bond throughout the
Care of young is protracted, extending for as long as six months,
among the longest for birds. For example, once common guillemot chicks
fledge, they remain with the male parent for several months at
sea. The frigatebirds have the longest period of parental care of
any bird except a few raptors and the southern ground hornbill,
with each chick fledging after four to six months and continued
assistance after that for up to fourteen months. Due to the
extended period of care, breeding occurs every two years rather than
annually for some species. This life-history strategy has probably
evolved both in response to the challenges of living at sea
(collecting widely scattered prey items), the frequency of breeding
failures due to unfavourable marine conditions, and the relative lack
of predation compared to that of land-living birds.
Because of the greater investment in raising the young and because
foraging for food may occur far from the nest site, in all seabird
species except the phalaropes, both parents participate in caring for
the young, and pairs are typically at least seasonally monogamous.
Many species, such as gulls, auks and penguins, retain the same mate
for several seasons, and many petrel species mate for life.
Albatrosses and procellariids, which mate for life, take many years to
form a pair bond before they breed, and the albatrosses have an
elaborate breeding dance that is part of pair-bond formation.
Breeding and colonies
Bird colony and
Seabird breeding behavior
Common murres breed on densely packed colonies on offshore rocks,
islands and cliffs.
Ninety-five percent of seabirds are colonial, and seabird colonies
are among the largest bird colonies in the world, providing one of
Earth's great wildlife spectacles. Colonies of over a million birds
have been recorded, both in the tropics (such as
Kiritimati in the
Pacific) and in the polar latitudes (as in Antarctica). Seabird
colonies occur exclusively for the purpose of breeding; non-breeding
birds will only collect together outside the breeding season in areas
where prey species are densely aggregated.
Seabird colonies are highly variable. Individual nesting sites can be
widely spaced, as in an albatross colony, or densely packed as with a
murre colony. In most seabird colonies, several different species will
nest on the same colony, often exhibiting some niche separation.
Seabirds can nest in trees (if any are available), on the ground (with
or without nests), on cliffs, in burrows under the ground and in rocky
crevices. Competition can be strong both within species and between
species, with aggressive species such as sooty terns pushing less
dominant species out of the most desirable nesting spaces. The
Bonin petrel nests during the winter to avoid competition
with the more aggressive wedge-tailed shearwater. When the seasons
overlap, the wedge-tailed shearwaters will kill young Bonin petrels in
order to use their burrows.
Many seabirds show remarkable site fidelity, returning to the same
burrow, nest or site for many years, and they will defend that site
from rivals with great vigour. This increases breeding success,
provides a place for returning mates to reunite, and reduces the costs
of prospecting for a new site. Young adults breeding for the first
time usually return to their natal colony, and often nest close to
where they hatched. This tendency, known as philopatry, is so strong
that a study of Laysan albatrosses found that the average distance
between hatching site and the site where a bird established its own
territory was 22 m; another study, this time on Cory's
shearwaters nesting near Corsica, found that of nine out of 61 male
chicks that returned to breed at their natal colony bred in the burrow
they were raised in, and two actually bred with their own mother.
Colonies are usually situated on islands, cliffs or headlands, which
land mammals have difficulty accessing. This is thought to provide
protection to seabirds, which are often very clumsy on land.
Coloniality often arises in types of bird that do not defend feeding
territories (such as swifts, which have a very variable prey source);
this may be a reason why it arises more frequently in seabirds.
There are other possible advantages: colonies may act as information
centres, where seabirds returning to the sea to forage can find out
where prey is by studying returning individuals of the same species.
There are disadvantages to colonial life, particularly the spread of
disease. Colonies also attract the attention of predators, principally
other birds, and many species attend their colonies nocturnally to
Pelican flock flying over
Havana Bay area. These birds come to Cuba
every year from North America in the northern hemisphere winter
Arctic terns breed in the arctic and subarctic and winter in
Like many birds, seabirds often migrate after the breeding season. Of
these, the trip taken by the
Arctic tern is the farthest of any bird,
crossing the equator in order to spend the Austral summer in
Antarctica. Other species also undertake trans-equatorial trips, both
from the north to the south, and from south to north. The population
of elegant terns, which nest off Baja California, splits after the
breeding season with some birds travelling north to the Central Coast
of California and some travelling as far south as
feed in the Humboldt Current. The sooty shearwater undertakes an
annual migration cycle that rivals that of the Arctic tern; birds that
New Zealand and
Chile and spend the northern summer feeding in
the North Pacific off Japan,
Alaska and California, an annual round
trip of 40,000 statute miles (64,000 km).
Other species also migrate shorter distances away from the breeding
sites, their distribution at sea determined by the availability of
food. If oceanic conditions are unsuitable, seabirds will emigrate to
more productive areas, sometimes permanently if the bird is young.
After fledging, juvenile birds often disperse further than adults, and
to different areas, so are commonly sighted far from a species' normal
range. Some species, such as the auks, do not have a concerted
migration effort, but drift southwards as the winter approaches.
Other species, such as some of the storm petrels, diving petrels and
cormorants, never disperse at all, staying near their breeding
colonies year round.
Away from the sea
While the definition of seabirds suggests that the birds in question
spend their lives on the ocean, many seabird families have many
species that spend some or even most of their lives inland away from
the sea. Most strikingly, many species breed tens, hundreds or even
thousands of miles inland. Some of these species still return to the
ocean to feed; for example, the snow petrel, the nests of which have
been found 480 kilometres (300 mi) inland on the Antarctic
mainland, are unlikely to find anything to eat around their breeding
sites. The marbled murrelet nests inland in old growth forest,
seeking huge conifers with large branches to nest on. Other
species, such as the California gull, nest and feed inland on lakes,
and then move to the coasts in the winter. Some cormorant,
pelican, gull and tern species have individuals that never visit the
sea at all, spending their lives on lakes, rivers, swamps and, in the
case of some of the gulls, cities and agricultural land. In these
cases it is thought that these terrestrial or freshwater birds evolved
from marine ancestors. Some seabirds, principally those that nest
in tundra, as skuas and phalaropes do, will migrate over land as well.
The more marine species, such as petrels, auks and gannets, are more
restricted in their habits, but are occasionally seen inland as
vagrants. This most commonly happens to young inexperienced birds, but
can happen in great numbers to exhausted adults after large storms, an
event known as a wreck, where they provide prized sightings for
Relationship with humans
Seabirds and fisheries
Seabirds have had a long association with both fisheries and sailors,
and both have drawn benefits and disadvantages from the relationship.
Fishermen have traditionally used seabirds as indicators of both fish
shoals, underwater banks that might indicate fish stocks, and of
potential landfall. In fact, the known association of seabirds with
land was instrumental in allowing the Polynesians to locate tiny
landmasses in the Pacific. Seabirds have provided food for
fishermen away from home, as well as bait. Famously, tethered
cormorants have been used to catch fish directly. Indirectly,
fisheries have also benefited from guano from colonies of seabirds
acting as fertilizer for the surrounding seas.
Negative effects on fisheries are mostly restricted to raiding by
birds on aquaculture, although long-lining fisheries also have to
deal with bait stealing. There have been claims of prey depletion by
seabirds of fishery stocks, and while there is some evidence of this,
the effects of seabirds are considered smaller than that of marine
mammals and predatory fish (like tuna).
Seabirds (mostly northern fulmars) flocking at a long-lining vessel
Some seabird species have benefited from fisheries, particularly from
discarded fish and offal. These discards compose 30% of the food of
seabirds in the North Sea, for example, and compose up to 70% of the
total food of some seabird populations. This can have other
impacts; for example, the spread of the northern fulmar through the
United Kingdom is attributed in part to the availability of
discards. Discards generally benefit surface feeders, such as
gannets and petrels, to the detriment of pursuit divers like penguins.
Fisheries also have negative effects on seabirds, and these effects,
particularly on the long-lived and slow-breeding albatrosses, are a
source of increasing concern to conservationists. The bycatch of
seabirds entangled in nets or hooked on fishing lines has had a big
impact on seabird numbers; for example, an estimated 100,000
albatrosses are hooked and drown each year on tuna lines set out by
long-line fisheries. Overall, many hundreds of thousands of
birds are trapped and killed each year, a source of concern for some
of the rarest species (for example, only about 2,000 short-tailed
albatrosses are known to still exist). Seabirds are also thought to
suffer when overfishing occurs.
The hunting of seabirds and the collecting of seabird eggs have
contributed to the declines of many species, and the extinction of
several, including the great auk and the spectacled cormorant.
Seabirds have been hunted for food by coastal peoples throughout
history—one of the earliest instances known is in southern Chile,
where archaeological excavations in middens has shown hunting of
albatrosses, cormorants and shearwaters from 5000 BP. This
pressure has led to some species becoming extinct in many places; in
particular, at least 20 species of an original 29 no longer breed on
Easter Island. In the 19th century, the hunting of seabirds for fat
deposits and feathers for the millinery trade reached industrial
levels. Muttonbirding (harvesting shearwater chicks) developed as
important industries in both
New Zealand and Tasmania, and the name of
one species, the providence petrel, is derived from its seemingly
miraculous arrival on
Norfolk Island where it provided a windfall for
starving European settlers. In the Falkland Islands, hundreds of
thousands of penguins were harvested for their oil each year. Seabird
eggs have also long been an important source of food for sailors
undertaking long sea voyages, as well as being taken when settlements
grow in areas near a colony. Eggers from San Francisco took almost
half a million eggs a year from the
Farallon Islands in the mid-19th
century, a period in the islands' history from which the seabird
species are still recovering.
Both hunting and egging continue today, although not at the levels
that occurred in the past, and generally in a more controlled manner.
For example, the Māori of
Stewart Island/Rakiura continue to harvest
the chicks of the sooty shearwater as they have done for centuries,
using traditional methods (called kaitiakitanga) to manage the
harvest, but now work with the
University of Otago
University of Otago in studying the
populations. In Greenland, however, uncontrolled hunting is pushing
many species into steep decline.
See also: Introduced mammals on seabird breeding islands
Other human factors have led to declines and even extinctions in
seabird populations, colonies and species. Of these, perhaps the most
serious are introduced species. Seabirds, breeding predominantly on
small isolated islands, have lost many predator defence
behaviours. Feral cats are capable of taking seabirds as large as
albatrosses, and many introduced rodents, such as the Pacific rat, can
take eggs hidden in burrows. Introduced goats, cattle, rabbits and
other herbivores can lead to problems, particularly when species need
vegetation to protect or shade their young. Disturbance of
breeding colonies by humans is often a problem as well—visitors,
even well-meaning tourists, can flush brooding adults off a colony
leaving chicks and eggs vulnerable to predators.
This crested auklet was oiled in
Alaska during the M/V Selendang Ayu
spill of 2004.
The build-up of toxins and pollutants in seabirds is also a concern.
Seabirds, being apex predators, suffered from the ravages of
it was banned; among other effects,
DDT was implicated in embryo
development problems and the skewed sex ratio of western gulls in
southern California. Oil spills are also a threat to seabird
species, as both a toxin and because the feathers of the birds become
saturated by the oil, causing them to lose their waterproofing.
Oil pollution threatens species with restricted ranges or already
The threats faced by seabirds have not gone unnoticed by scientists or
the conservation movement. As early as 1903, U.S. President Theodore
Roosevelt was convinced of the need to declare
Pelican Island in
National Wildlife Refuge
National Wildlife Refuge to protect the bird colonies
(including the nesting brown pelicans), and in 1909 he protected
the Farallon Islands. Today many important seabird colonies are given
some measure of protection, from
Heron Island in
Australia to Triangle
Island in British Columbia.
Island restoration techniques, pioneered by New Zealand, enable the
removal of exotic invaders from increasingly large islands. Feral cats
have been removed from Ascension Island, Arctic foxes from many
islands in the Aleutian Islands, and rats from Campbell Island.
The removal of these introduced species has led to increases in
numbers of species under pressure and even the return of extirpated
ones. After the removal of cats from Ascension Island, seabirds began
to nest there again for the first time in over a hundred years.
Seabird mortality caused by long-line fisheries can be greatly reduced
by techniques such as setting long-line bait at night, dying the bait
blue, setting the bait underwater, increasing the amount of weight on
lines and by using bird scarers, and their deployment is
increasingly required by many national fishing fleets. The
international ban on the use of drift nets has also helped reduce the
mortality of seabirds and other marine wildlife.
One of the Millennium Projects in the UK was the Scottish Seabird
Centre, near the important bird sanctuaries on Bass Rock,
the surrounding islands. The area is home to huge colonies of gannets,
puffins, skuas and other seabirds. The centre allows visitors to watch
live video from the islands as well as learn about the threats the
birds face and how we can protect them, and has helped to
significantly raise the profile of seabird conservation in the UK.
Seabird tourism can provide income for coastal communities as well as
raise the profile of seabird conservation. For example, the northern
royal albatross colony at
Taiaroa Head in
New Zealand attracts 40,000
visitors a year.
The plight of albatross and large seabirds, as well as other marine
creatures, being taken as bycatch by long-line fisheries, has been
addressed by a large number of non-governmental organizations
(including BirdLife International, the American
Bird Conservancy and
the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). This led to the
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, a legally
binding treaty designed to protect these threatened species, which has
been ratified by eleven countries as of 2008 (namely Argentina,
Australia, Chile, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South
Spain and the United Kingdom).
Role in culture
Depiction of a pelican with chicks on a stained glass window, Saint
Mark's Church, Gillingham, Kent.
Many seabirds are little studied and poorly known, due to living far
out to sea and breeding in isolated colonies. However, some seabirds,
particularly, the albatrosses and gulls, have broken into popular
consciousness. The albatrosses have been described as "the most
legendary of birds", and have a variety of myths and legends
associated with them, and today it is widely considered unlucky to
harm them, although the notion that sailors believed that is a
myth that derives from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem, "The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner", in which a sailor is punished for
killing an albatross by having to wear its corpse around his neck.
Instead of the Cross the Albatross
About my neck was hung
Sailors did, however, consider it unlucky to touch a storm petrel,
especially one that has landed on the ship.
Gulls are one of the most commonly seen seabirds, given their use of
human-made habitats (such as cities and dumps) and their often
fearless nature. They therefore also have made it into the popular
consciousness – they have been used metaphorically, as in Jonathan
Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, or to denote a closeness to the
sea, such as their use in The Lord of the Rings – both in the
Gondor and therefore
Númenor (used in the design of the
films), and to call
Legolas to (and across) the sea. Other species
have also made an impact; pelicans have long been associated with
mercy and altruism because of an early Western Christian myth that
they split open their breast to feed their starving chicks.
The following are the groups of birds normally classed as seabirds.
Sphenisciformes (Antarctic and southern waters; 16 species)
Procellariiformes (Tubenoses: pan-oceanic and pelagic; 93 species)
Procellariidae fulmars, prions, shearwaters, gadfly and other petrels
Pelacanoididae diving petrels
Hydrobatidae storm petrels
Pelecaniformes (Worldwide; 8 species)
Suliformes (Worldwide; about 56 species)
Sulidae gannets and boobies
Phaethontiformes (Worldwide tropical seas; 3 species)
Charadriiformes (Worldwide; 305 species, but only the families listed
are classed as seabirds.)
For an alternative taxonomy of these groups, see also Sibley-Ahlquist
BirdLife International (BLI) (2012). "Onychoprion fuscatus". IUCN
Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.1. International Union
for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
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Media related to Seabirds at Wikimedia Commons
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University of Otago to manage sooty shearwater harvests
BirdLife International; Save the
Marine Ornithology, the Journal of
Seabird Science and Conservation
www.seabird.org, official site of the Scottish
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