Why do pigeons kill their chicks when touched by a human?

Why do pigeons kill their chicks when touched by a human?

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I used to have many pigeons around the house. If by chance one of the chicks fell out of the nest, we used to put it back using gloves.

Usually, if we would touch the chicks with our bare hands, however, the other pigeons would usually kill the chick. I want to know why they do that?

This is a story I have been told as well when I was a kid. Usually this is related to the foreign smell that the humans leave on the chick. However, this seems to be an urban legend, as birds have not a great sense of smell.

Snopes says about this:

However, Mother birds will not reject their babies because they smell human scent on them, nor will they refuse to set on eggs that have been handled by a person. Many birds have a limited sense of smell and cannot detect human scent, or if they can detect it, do not react to it.

What can happen is that the birds returning to their nest which find the nest disturbed compared to the situation when they left might cause them to temporarily or permanently abondon their nest.

You can find this and more urban legends about birds here and here.

10 Myths About Pigeons

There are plenty of references to pigeons in modern society. People can be pigeon-toed or pigeon-holed, or even act as stool pigeons. If you've ever wondered why pigeon-themed parlance plays such a central role in human culture, look no further than your local playground or shopping center. These birds are everywhere.

Because pigeons thrive in man-made environments, they've become extremely common wherever there are people. In fact, pigeons are abundant in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as throughout North America. In addition to being the subjects of legend and lore, these creatures are also the focus of a lot of misconceptions. Check out our list of the most common myths about pigeons, and perhaps you'll learn a thing or two about our familiar feathered friends.

10: Pigeons Make Bad Fathers

"Papa was a rolling stone" may be true of many bird species, but not pigeons. These birds tend to mate for life, which means that it's very unusual for a male and female to separate once they've formed a bond. And that's not all -- a male pigeon also contributes to nest-building and incubating eggs. In addition, he defends his family against intruders or anything that threatens their well-being.

Male pigeons also help feed their young. These proud papas actually produce a type of milk called crop milk for their offspring. It's a highly nutritious fluid produced in their crop (a throat pouch where food is stored). So while most male birds fly the coop after mating, pigeons stick around and take good care of their families.

9: Pigeons Explode if You Feed Them Rice

The old wives' tale about pigeons and other birds exploding when they eat uncooked rice is a myth, and one that has modified many wedding day send-offs throughout the world. The false theory is that because birds are unable to digest grains of raw rice, it'll expand in their stomachs and cause the animals' bellies to burst.

Now for the truth. While many smaller birds are unable to digest uncooked rice, pigeons are among those that can, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

And don't worry, even those that can't digest raw rice are not known to explode if they eat it. So the next time you're at a wedding, don't hold back. Grab a handful of rice and shower the newlyweds to your heart's content

8: It's Good Luck to Be Pooped on by a Pigeon

OK, this one is tough to prove or disprove with any sort of scientific accuracy, but the consensus is that being defecated on by anyone or anything is a bad thing. For one thing, pigeon poop is smelly. And second, while not toxic in small amounts, it can cause serious, life-threatening fungal infections if inhaled in significant quantities, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

If that doesn't convince you, consider that pigeons also carry parasites, which may be transmitted to humans through contact with their droppings. When you counter this with the scarcity of evidence to support claims of post-pigeon poop good fortune, it becomes clear that you should avoid standing below a flock of these birds around mealtime.

7: Pigeons and Doves Are Divine

Again, this myth is difficult to discuss rationally, but we felt we had to include it in the list since pigeons and doves (same family, different species) appear so often in scripture and the writings of the ancient world. Whether serving as sacrifice in Jewish tradition or as Noah's messenger on the ark, pigeons and doves play a central role in the lore of the world's religions.

Pigeons and doves also represent peace, purity, faith and fidelity in numerous cultures around the world. Why the birds hold such a sacred place in human societies is difficult to discern, but pigeons are no more or less likely than other animals to guide us to the hereafter.

Despite sounding like part of a conspiracy theory, this pigeon myth is actually rooted in a measure of truth. Pigeons have been used by governments and militaries around the globe for centuries, and many pigeon activities have proved quite critical in espionage operations. For example, before the widespread use of satellite imagery, pigeons would be fitted with tiny cameras and flown over enemy territory on information-gathering exercises.

They've also been used extensively as messengers -- the birds would carry critical notes between military installations even as late as World War II. That being said, it's extremely unlikely that the pigeons you feed at the local park are working undercover for a foreign government.

There are plenty of references to pigeons in modern society. People can be pigeon-toed or pigeon-holed, or even act as stool pigeons. If you've ever wondered why pigeon-themed parlance plays such a central role in human culture, look no further than your local playground or shopping center. These birds are everywhere.

Because pigeons thrive in man-made environments, they've become extremely common wherever there are people. In fact, pigeons are abundant in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well as throughout North America. In addition to being the subjects of legend and lore, these creatures are also the focus of a lot of misconceptions. Check out our list of the most common myths about pigeons, and perhaps you'll learn a thing or two about our familiar feathered friends.

4: Pigeons All Look Pretty Much Alike

This is definitely a misconception about these ubiquitous birds. Pigeons are common in so many places around the world that they tend to blend into the scenery. But take a closer look and you'll see a huge variety of colors and patterns among pigeons. In fact, there are dozens of distinct color variations, including red, white, blue-black and gray, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Much of the variation in pigeon coloring is due to selective breeding throughout history by people who have collected pigeons for their feathers. This should come as no surprise since these animals have been cohabitating with humans for 5,000 to 10,000 years, often as pets, messengers or human sustenance.

3: Pigeons Can Fly Thousands of Miles Per Day

Based on the incredible flying abilities of pigeons, stories about their winged performance have been greatly inflated over the years. For example, pigeons have a remarkable ability to find their way home, but not from halfway around the world -- as legend would have it. The truth is still impressive. Pigeons are able to navigate home across hundreds of miles using the sun, the Earth's magnetic field and landmarks such as tall buildings.

There are also many tall tales about pigeons traveling more than a thousand miles in one day -- sometimes many thousands. This is an exaggeration. The truth is that racing pigeons fly between 40 and 50 miles (64 and 80 kilometers) per hour, with the top performers covering a maximum of about 600 miles (966 kilometers) in a single day, according to the Solar Center at Stanford University. So while these stats are remarkable, pigeons are not the superheroes that many mythmakers would have you believe.

As wild creatures go, pigeons are not among the most feared. But don't let their mild manner and ability to coexist with humans fool you. Pigeons are known to attack other birds and even humans if threatened, especially when they feel their nest is in danger.

So, what does a pigeon attack look like? Most pigeon aggression is directed toward other members of the flock, which has a strict hierarchy. Pigeons may also attack people if provoked. This may involve coming together as a flock to peck at a target, who can usually manage to get away without injury. The bottom line is that while feeding pigeons is OK, try not to make them angry. They may be small, but they probably outnumber you by at least a 20-1 ratio.

The notion that pigeons are stupid couldn't be farther from the truth. These animals have been the subject of countless scientific studies over the past few decades and are widely considered to be among the smartest creatures on Earth. For example, pigeons can be taught to perform complex actions and remember images for several years. They can even recognize their own image. Now that is something cats, dogs and even infant humans generally can't do.

It's probably because pigeons are so common that people don't give them their due. There is also that unfortunate habit of pooping all over cars, sidewalks and park benches. But pigeons are actually quite smart and well-adapted to their environment. So next time you find yourself face to face with a flock, take a moment to appreciate these beautiful birds. They are among the most interesting -- and misunderstood -- creatures in our world.

Will birds really abandon their young if humans disturb the nest?

If you're terrified of birds (they have claws like jungle animals and jaws that crack nuts, people), you probably have no problem with the "don't touch the baby bird or the mother will abandon it" idea. Fortunately, there are kinder people in the world who are genuinely interested in saving abandoned birds and feel that orphaning helpless animals is wrong.

And for them, here's some good news: You shouldn't fear that your horrible human stench will mark a baby bird for the orphanage.

So let's just get a few things straight from the get-go: First, birds don't really even have that great of a sense of smell. Their olfactory nerves aren't terribly sophisticated, and only a few birds have an adaptation that signals them to certain scents. That's helpful for a vulture hoping to catch a whiff of decaying matter, for instance, but a robin isn't going to have some special "human detector" built into it [source: Boyd].

So before we get further into the question at hand, let's answer a related one. If you do find a baby bird (without fledgling feathers, meaning that it's too young to practice flying) that's fallen out of its nest, it's perfectly reasonable (and kind) to gently deposit it back home [source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology]. You're not giving the bird the scarlet "H" human scent and leaving it for dead by any means. (Do note, however, that you might want to observe from a distance to make sure the parents aren't around they could very well be waiting until you're gone to pick up Junior [source: Sweetbriar Nature Center].)

Now, the answer to whether birds abandon their young if humans disturb the nest is a little more complicated. For one, it depends on the bird itself. Hawks, for instance, might be more willing to abandon their young if they think a predator attack is imminent, while a robin might not see the same risk in a disturbed nest. Keep in mind that it probably comes down to individual situations as well. If a robin sees her nest is disturbed and she's only very recently laid her eggs, she might be more willing to fly off than if she has a nest full of fledglings almost ready to fly [source: Boyd].

So don't give Mama Bird a bad rep. Overall, she's like most other animals -- far too invested in her young to fly off and abandon her young. While there may be exceptions to this, don't let the thought trouble you when depositing a fallen baby bird back in its home.

How to Take Care of a Baby Dove

So, you’ve found a baby dove and you want to know how to nurse them back to health?

Firstly, make sure that it does, in fact, need your help. If it doesn’t try to run off when you pick it up, then it seems as though it isn’t just a dazed fledgling bird, but it does need some assistance.

Firstly, check around to see if you can find their nest. If it’s a windy day they may have been blown out of their nest.

If you find their nest and you can reach it then you can carefully place them back in it. Picking them up is okay as adult doves won’t disown their babies if they smell of humans.

How to Re-nest a Bird

If you can’t find the baby doves original nest or it’s too high up for you to reach, then you can create a makeshift one to keep them cozy in.

Use a small basket, line it with dried grass and straw and make sure that it has good drainage for those rainy days.

Bright colors may frighten the baby dove, so give the rainbow-colored baskets a miss and stick with neutral shades.

Place your makeshift nest in a tree. Look out for their parents, as they will keep on searching for their baby until they find them. Hopefully, they’ll find them and feed them soon.

How to Check a Baby Dove

Before you re-nest the baby dove, you need to check that they’re well enough to be left in the scary outside world.

Carefully hold them in the palm of your hand, if they feel cold or cool then you need to warm them up.

You can do this by placing them on the low setting of a heat pad or by filling a bottle with warm water and placing it next to the bird.

If, after fifteen minutes the baby dove seems to have brightened up then they’re ready to be re-nested.

How to Feed a Baby Dove

If the baby dove you’ve found appears injured, incapable of looking after themselves, or their parents don’t return to their nest, then it’s best to get them to a rehabilitator.

If you can’t do this, then you need to feed them. You can use different bird formulas such as Gerber and Beechnut strained chicken food.

Make a small snip in the corner of the bag and allow the baby dove to stick their beak into it. They should slurp it up…they will get messy.

Make sure that the baby dove is warm before feeding them. If they’re cold then they can’t digest their food properly.

Formula Recipe

Here is a recipe you can follow to feed your rescued dove and pigeon:

Buy some oatmeal and pour out 1.25 measuring cups of it. Microwave 1 cup of shaken, sweet organic soy milk and then add it to the cup. Stir the mixture.

Crack 2 eggs and mix them in to the mixture. If the bird is more mature than just add 1 egg. Use a spoon to mix it up, then top it up with cold soy milk.

The younger they are, the runnier the mixture should be. You can alter the consistency accordingly by adding more or less soy milk.

Storing the Formula

Make sure that the formula is at room temperature before feeding it to your baby dove.

You can store it in the fridge for up to 48 hours. Make sure that your heated mixture is stirred well to avoid their throat being scolded.

Things Not to Do When Feeding Them

Make sure that when you’re feeding your baby dove that you don’t put pressure on the crop when it’s full or partially full.

If the baby dove isn’t fully alert them don’t try and feed them.

Keep the area you’re keeping them in nice and clean.

Rehabilitating Them

In many states, it’s illegal to continue looking after a wild bird after you’ve nursed them back to health.

If you believe that the baby dove is now fit and healthy then you should release them back into the wild.

Make sure that you do it in the same area where you found them, and that they have plenty of trees and bushes around them.

Discover The Beginner’s Guide To Birdwatching: Finding birds & happiness >>> Check It Out Here

The Pigeon as a Messenger:

The pigeon is probably best known for its ability to return ‘home’ from long distances and has therefore been used extensively throughout history as a messenger, dating as far back as 2500 BC and continuing into the 21st century. The first historical mention of the pigeon being used to carry messages was in the city of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia in 2500 BC. The ruler of the city released two doves to carry the news of the relief of the city from its warring neighbours.

It is believed that pigeons have been bred in China since 772 BC, and according to author Salvador Bofarull, Indian and Arab merchants used carrier pigeons when visiting China. Several hundred years later, references have been found that confirm pigeons were used to carry messages attached to their legs. At the first Olympic Games held in 776 BC, every athlete taking part brought a homing pigeon from his village. If he won his event, his would be the bird that carried the news home.

In 532 BC a Greek poet referred to the pigeon as a message carrier in a poem entitled ‘Ode to a Carrier Pigeon’ and later, between 63 BC - AD 21, the Greek geographer Strabo noted that pigeons were trained to fly between certain points along the Mediterranean coastline to carry messages of the arrival of fish shoals for waiting fishermen. In the 5th century BC the first network of pigeon messengers is thought to have been established in Assyria and Persia by Cyrus the Great, and later in 53 BC Hannibal was thought to have used pigeons to carry despatches during the Battle of Modena. Julius Caesar is also believed to have used pigeons to carry messages during the conquest of Gaul (northern Italy, France, Belgium and western Switzerland) from 58 to 51 BC.

Pigeon Post
Woodcarving 1481

In the early 1800s pigeons were used for the first time as commercial messengers by the Rothschild family to communicate between their financial houses. A series of pigeon lofts were set up across Europe where carrier pigeons were housed and then dispatched with important financial information. This method of communication was far more efficient and considerably faster than any other form available at the time, and it allowed the Rothschild family to play the markets ahead of the competition and amass a fortune as a result.

Later, in 1850, pigeons were used to great effect as commercial messengers by the world famous Reuters News Agency. The service was started in 1850 in Germany and pigeons flew between Aachen and Brussels in Belgium, carrying the latest news and prices of stocks and shares. A telegraph service had already been established between the two countries by 1850, but it was so unreliable, and there were so many gaps in the communication lines, that pigeons were used for their speed and reliability. Pigeons were able to travel the 76 miles between Aachen and Brussels in 2 hours, whereas the railway took over 6 hours to do the same journey.

During the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870-71, carrier pigeons were taken out of the city, along with refugees, by balloon. During the siege a total of 65 balloons escaped Paris, many carrying pigeons. The pigeons were then taken to pigeon lofts set up well outside the battle zone from where they could be sent to cities throughout France. Communication between the besieged city and the outside world then became possible as a result of this unique system of carrying messages.

Post Office Notice Paris 1870

The Prussians became aware of the carrier pigeons and employed hawks in an attempt to catch them, but many of the birds got through and delivered their messages.

Medals commemorating the arrival of the pigeon post in Paris 1870

Airmail Service with Pigeons

The first airmail service using pigeons was established in 1896 in New Zealand and was known as the Pigeon-Gram Service. The service operated between The Great Barrier Reef and New Zealand, with pigeons covering the distance in 1.75 hours and averaging speeds of up to 77.6 mph, only 40% slower than a modern aircraft. Each pigeon carried 5 messages and special Pigeon-Gram stamps costing 2/- each (20 pence) were sold for each message carried.

Pigeon Post Route, Auckland to Great Barrier Island

Pigeons in the First & Second World Wars

In the First World War, pigeons were used extensively for carrying messages. During the Battle of Ypres in 1915, pigeons were used to carry messages from the front line back to Brigade HQ, and although German marksmen were deployed to shoot the birds down, many survived and delivered their messages. Pigeons were also carried in tanks during battles and released through tiny portholes in the side. Mine-sweeping boats also carried pigeons so that in the event of an attack by a U-boat, a pigeon could be released with a message confirming the exact location of the sinking boat, often resulting in the crew being saved. Even seaplanes carried pigeons to relay urgent information about enemy movements. In the Second World War, pigeons were used less due to advances in telecommunication systems and radar, but they were still used in active service in Europe, India and Burma.

WW1 Mobile Pigeon Loft - WW2 Paratrooper with Carrier Pigeon - GI Joe

Orissa Police
Pigeon Handlers

Orissa Police Carrier
Pigeon Station

Message Attached to
Carrier Pigeon

Attracting reptiles

For years, it’s been known that associating with other species can be beneficial for one or more species within a group. Egrets in Florida, for example, enjoy a degree of protection from predators by nesting near alligators. Is it possible that siblicide, by providing chicks and carcasses, might play a role in attracting the reptiles?

Lucas A. Nell wanted to find out. In a recent study, he and colleagues from in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at the University of Florida compared the body condition of alligators trapped in areas with and without nesting colonies of wading birds. Body-condition indices were significantly higher in alligators associated with the colonies. While it’s obvious that eating a young egret will benefit an alligator, this is the first study to document the effects of an egret colony on the body condition of a population of alligators. It’s as if both parties negotiated a deal. We’ll keep predators away, say the reptiles, so long as you provide an occasional morsel of egret. Everybody wins.

Siblicide is an unusual reproductive strategy that helps maximize surviving offspring. It again demonstrates the cleverness of those amazing birds. — Eldon Greij

Magpies behaving badly

In winter and early spring, many Australians start scanning the skies for a crazy black and white bundle of feathers as the magpie Gymnorhina tibicen starts breeding and raising its chicks.

Most magpie aggression happens during the six weeks they are caring for chicks in the nest. (Source: John Cooper)

Many of us have childhood memories of aggressive magpies, and indeed, a national survey has found that 90 per cent of males and 72 per cent of females have been attacked by a magpie at some time in their life.

Being the target of a magpie's ire is an inevitable part of growing up in Australia. Or is it? Certainly, when magpies pounce, they can do real damage. The Injury Surveillance Information System (ISIS) is a national collection of hospital emergency department attendance records. Their data shows that of 59 magpie attacks, the eye was the birds' most common target.

Magpies seem to get particularly infuriated by bicycles: nearly half of those attacked were riding a bike at the time. But delving further into the ISIS data, we find that almost two thirds of the magpie victims were male, and half of all those attacked were aged between 10-30. Obviously magpies are selective!

The large public problem and potential liability suits precipitated by magpie attacks have prompted avian researchers to take a fresh look at magpies, their behaviour and their social organisation, in the hope of finding clues on how to live more peacefully with these Australian icons.

Watch out posties!

In many areas, aggressive magpies are simply shot. This is still common practice. But Dr Darryl Jones from the Suburban Wildlife Research Group at Griffith University believed there had to be a more humane way to deal with magpies.

He surveyed people who had been attacked, and found to his surprise that despite being the target of magpie wrath, 90 per cent of victims didn't want the magpie to be destroyed.

Dr Jones knew that magpies were highly intelligent, that they only attack for a few weeks out of the year, and that their social behaviour is very complex. He believed that if we had a better understanding of what triggers a magpie attack, it might be possible to develop better management strategies.

Dr Jones' field surveys found that, contrary to popular belief, only about 12 per cent of all male magpies will actually attack people. Of these, about half will attack only pedestrians, 10 per cent go exclusively for postal workers on bikes, eight per cent will attack bicyclists, and the remaining third will attack any of these.

Fact file:

When: Magpies begin breeding in July and this lasts through until the chicks fledge in February. Most attacks occur between August and November when the chicks are in the nest!

Where: NSW, VIC, eastern South Australia, south west WA, coastal ranges of Qld.

Other info: - Magpies are only aggressive for six weeks of the year, around August/September, when they have chicks in the nest.
- Most magpies attack the same few individuals again and again, possibly because they remind the bird of someone who once hurt them.
- Only the males attack (the females are too busy sitting on the eggs).
Magpies are excellent mimics and can even imitate the human voice.

Magpies remember

Interestingly, most magpies which attack pedestrians attack the same few individuals over and over again. If they attack others, it's probably a case of mistaken identity, says Dr Jones. He believes such magpies may have had an early traumatic experience - perhaps someone who looked like these people had harmed the magpies chicks, or even 'rescued' a fledgling, something the parent mistook as predation. Magpies are able to recognise and remember individual human faces, even if the person wears different clothes!

  • If you get attacked while riding a bike or horse, get off immediately
  • If a particular bird is harassing you repeatedly, choose a different route for the next few weeks until the chicks fledge
  • Wear an icecream container on your head when crossing magpie flightpaths

The attacks specifically on postal workers while on their bikes is particularly intriguing. Dr Jones looked at various factors which could be responsible, such as the colour of the bike, or the speed, but nothing was significant. He suggests it could be something about the continuous movement of the bike, because if the rider dismounts and walks with the bike, the attack instantly stops.

What it does reveal about magpies is that they can literally tell the time and know exactly when the postal bike is due to go past. Postal workers may be better off delivering the mail at more unpredictable hours, in order to fool the magpie's excellent sense of time.

Dealing with aggressive magpies

One way to deal with aggressive magpies has been to trap the male and move it to another area. Although not as drastic as shooting, biologists were concerned that this would also have an adverse impact - male and female magpies take equal responsibility for caring for their young, and researchers were concerned that removing the male would leave the female unable to feed the young adequately. Worse still, the fear was that another male would come along, supplant the first male and kill the chicks in order to start a new family with his own genes.

But to the amazement of Jones and his colleagues, as soon as a male magpie was removed, a new magpie would take his place and immediately begin defending the territory and caring for the young, even though they weren't his.

Magpies are very intelligent, probably at the same level as parrots, and have very complex social systems. Perhaps in order to live more peacefully with magpies, we need to start taking this in to account, and begin managing our own behaviour, as much as that of the magpie.

Further info and credits

Birds. Their Habits and Skills. Kaplan, G. and Rogers, L.J. (2001) Allen and Unwin

Magpie Alert: learning to live with a Wild Neighbour, Dr Darryl Jones. (2002) University of NSW Press

Special thanks to:
Professor Gisela Kaplan, University of New England,
Dr Darryl Jones, Griffith University,
John Cooper, photographer,
Mick Richards, photographer.

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Birds can recognize people's faces and know their voices

New research suggests that some birds may know who their human friends are, as they are able to recognize people's faces and differentiate between human voices.

Being able to identify a friend or potential foe could be key to the bird's ability to survive.

Animal behaviour experts from the University of Lincoln in the UK and the University of Vienna worked with pigeons and crows in two separate studies.

Research published in Avian Biology Research shows that pigeons can reliably discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar humans, and that they use facial features to tell people apart.

The team trained a group of pigeons to recognise the difference between photographs of familiar and unfamiliar objects. These pigeons, along with a control group, were then shown photographs of pairs of human faces. One face was of a person familiar to the birds whilst the other was of someone they had not seen before.

The experimental group birds were able to recognise and classify the familiar people using only their faces, whereas the birds without prior training failed. The results show that pigeons can discriminate between the familiar and unfamiliar people and can do this on solely using facial characteristics.

Lincoln's lead researcher on the project, Dr Anna Wilkinson, from the School of Life Sciences, said: "Such advanced cognitive processes have rarely been observed in pigeons and suggest that they not only recognise individual humans but also know who they know -- something which could be very important for survival. Some humans feed pigeons, others chase them. To know individuals and act appropriately to them is enormously advantageous."

In a separate study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, the team investigated the ability of carrion crows to differentiate between the voices and calls of familiar and unfamiliar humans and jackdaws, or 'heterospecific individuals' ie. those outside of their own species. Previous research has focused on crows' ability to recognise and communicate with their own species.

The crows responded significantly more often to unfamiliar than familiar human voices and, conversely, responded more to familiar than unfamiliar jackdaw calls. According to the research team, the results provide the first evidence that birds can discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar heterospecific individuals using auditory stimuli.

Why do some animals kill and eat their own offspring?

Short answer: Researchers don&rsquot know the exact reasons why animals sometimes kill their own babies, but it&rsquos generally believed that it might satisfy the energy and nutritional requirements of the parent, make the parent more attractive to potential mates, and help in getting rid of offspring that are sick or take too long to mature. In some cases, animals eat their eggs to protect them from predators.


There exists no single definition of which groups, families and species are seabirds, and most definitions are in some way arbitrary. Elizabeth Shreiber and Joanne Burger, two seabird scientists, said, "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." [2] However, by convention all of the Sphenisciformes (penguins) and Procellariiformes (albatrosses and petrels), all of the Suliformes (gannets and cormorants) 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 (Red and Red-necked) are oceanic for nine months of the year, crossing the equator to feed pelagically. [3] [4]

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 seabirds. Sea eagles and other fish-eating birds of prey are also typically excluded, however tied to marine environments they may be. [5]

German paleontologist Gerald Mayr defined the "core waterbird" clade Aequornithes in 2010. This lineage gives rise to the Gaviiformes, Sphenisciformes, Procellariiformes, Ciconiiformes, Suliformes and Pelecaniformes. [6] The tropicbirds are part of a lineage—Eurypygimorphae—that is a sister group to the Aequornithes. [7]

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. [2] 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) [8] [ needs update ] but had a beak filled with sharp teeth. [9] Flying Cretaceous seabirds do not exceed wingspans of two meters any sizes were taken [ clarification needed ] by piscivorous pterosaurs. [10]

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 has features suggestive of Procellariiformes and Fregatidae. [11] As a clade, the Aequornithes either became seabirds in a single transition in the Cretaceous or some lineages such as pelicans and frigatebirds adapted to sea living independently from freshwater-dwelling ancestors. [12] In the Paleogene both pterosaurs and marine reptiles became extinct, allowing seabirds to expand ecologically. These post-extinction seas were dominated by early Procellariidae, giant penguins and two extinct families, the Pelagornithidae and the Plotopteridae (a group of large seabirds that looked like the penguins). [13] Modern genera began their wide radiation in the Miocene, although the genus Puffinus (which includes today's Manx shearwater and sooty shearwater) might date back to the Oligocene. [2] Within the Charadriiformes, the gulls and allies (Lari) became seabirds in the late Eocene, and then waders in the middle Miocene (Langhian). [12] 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. [14] [ needs update ]

Adaptations to life at sea Edit

Seabirds have made numerous adaptations to living on and feeding in the sea. 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. [15] 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. [16] 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, [17] and help distinguish familiar nest odours from unfamiliar ones. [18]

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. [20] The excretions from these glands (which are positioned in the head of the birds, emerging from the nasal cavity) are almost pure sodium chloride. [21]

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. [19] 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 water. [22]

The plumage of most seabirds is less colourful than that of land birds, restricted in the main to variations of black, white or grey. [15] 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, [15] 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. [23]

Diet and feeding Edit

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. [24]

Surface feeding Edit

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.

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. [25] 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. [26] 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. [27]

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, [28] and many albatrosses and petrels have hooked bills to snatch fast-moving prey. On the other hand, most gulls are versatile and opportunistic feeders who will eat a wide variety of prey, both at sea and on land. [29]

Pursuit diving Edit

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. Underwater propulsion is 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. [2] 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 diving. For example, the razorbill (an Atlantic auk) requires 64% more energy to fly than a petrel of equivalent size. [30] 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 short-tailed shearwater is the deepest diver of the shearwaters, having been recorded diving below 70 metres (230 ft). [31]

Some albatross species are also capable of limited diving, with light-mantled sooty albatrosses holding the record at 12 metres (40 ft). [32] 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, but 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. [33]

Plunge diving Edit

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), [34] 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. [35]

It may be that plunge divers are restricted in their hunting grounds to clear waters that afford a view of their prey from the air. [36] While they are the dominant guild in the tropics, the link between plunge diving and water clarity is inconclusive. [37] Some plunge divers (as well as some surface feeders) are dependent on dolphins and tuna to push shoaling fish up towards the surface. [38]

Kleptoparasitism, scavenging and predation Edit

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. [39] The nocturnal nesting behaviour of some seabirds has been interpreted as arising due to pressure from this aerial piracy. [40] 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. [2] 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%. [41] 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. [42] 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 pups. [43]

Life history Edit

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. [2] [44] Most species will only have one clutch a year, unless they lose the first (with a few exceptions, like the Cassin's auklet), [45] and many species (like the tubenoses and sulids) will only lay one egg a year. [28]

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. [30] The frigatebirds have the longest period of parental care of any bird except a few raptors and the southern ground hornbill, [46] with each chick fledging after four to six months and continued assistance after that for up to fourteen months. [47] 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. [2]

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. [28] 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. [48]

Breeding and colonies Edit

Ninety-five percent of seabirds are colonial, [2] 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. [ citation needed ]

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. [49] The tropical 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. [50]

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. [2] This increases breeding success, provides a place for returning mates to reunite, and reduces the costs of prospecting for a new site. [51] 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 metres (72 ft) [52] 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. [53]

Colonies are usually situated on islands, cliffs or headlands, which land mammals have difficulty accessing. [54] 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. [2] 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 avoid predation. [55] Birds from different colonies often forage in different areas to avoid competition. [56]

Migration Edit

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 Peru and Chile to feed in the Humboldt Current. [57] The sooty shearwater undertakes an annual migration cycle that rivals that of the Arctic tern birds that nest in New Zealand and Chile and spend the northern summer feeding in the North Pacific off Japan, Alaska and California, an annual round trip of 64,000 kilometres (40,000 mi). [58]

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. [59] 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. [30] Other species, such as some of the storm petrels, diving petrels and cormorants, never disperse at all, staying near their breeding colonies year round. [ citation needed ]

Away from the sea Edit

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. [60] The marbled murrelet nests inland in old growth forest, seeking huge conifers with large branches to nest on. [61] Other species, such as the California gull, nest and feed inland on lakes, and then move to the coasts in the winter. [62] 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. [15] Some seabirds, principally those that nest in tundra, as skuas and phalaropes do, will migrate over land as well. [3] [63]

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. [64]

Seabirds and fisheries Edit

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, [38] 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. [2] 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. [65]

Negative effects on fisheries are mostly restricted to raiding by birds on aquaculture, [66] 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). [2]

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. [67] 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. [68] Discards generally benefit surface feeders, such as gannets and petrels, to the detriment of pursuit divers like penguins and guillemots, which can get entangled in the nets. [69]

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. [70] [71] [ needs update ] 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. [72] Changes to the marine ecosystems caused by dredging, which alters the biodiversity of the seafloor, can also have a negative impact. [73]

Exploitation Edit

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. [74] 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. [75] 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. [76]

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 stewardship, kaitiakitanga, to manage the harvest, but now also work with the University of Otago in studying the populations. [77] In Greenland, however, uncontrolled hunting is pushing many species into steep decline. [78]

Other threats Edit

Other human factors have led to declines and even extinctions in seabird populations and species. Of these, perhaps the most serious are introduced species. Seabirds, breeding predominantly on small isolated islands, are vulnerable to predators because they have lost many behaviours associated with defence from predators. [54] Feral cats can take seabirds as large as albatrosses, and many introduced rodents, such as the Pacific rat, take eggs hidden in burrows. Introduced goats, cattle, rabbits and other herbivores can create problems, particularly when species need vegetation to protect or shade their young. [79] The 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. [80] [81]

The build-up of toxins and pollutants in seabirds is also a concern. Seabirds, being apex predators, suffered from the ravages of the insecticide DDT until it was banned DDT was implicated, for example, in embryo development problems and the skewed sex ratio of western gulls in southern California. [82] Oil spills are also a threat to seabirds: the oil is toxic, and bird feathers become saturated by the oil, causing them to lose their waterproofing. [83] Oil pollution in particular threatens species with restricted ranges or already depressed populations. [84] [85]

Climate change mainly affect seabirds via changes to their habitat: various processes in the ocean lead to decreased availability of food and colonies are more often flooded as a consequence of sea level rise and extreme rainfall events. Heat stress from extreme temperatures is an additional threat. [86] Some seabirds have used changing wind patterns to forage further and more efficiently. [87]

Conservation Edit

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 Florida a National Wildlife Refuge to protect the bird colonies (including the nesting brown pelicans), [88] 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. [89] [90]

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, [91] 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. [92]

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, [93] and their deployment is increasingly required by many national fishing fleets.

One of the Millennium Projects in the UK was the Scottish Seabird Centre, near the important bird sanctuaries on Bass Rock, Fidra and 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, although it needs to be managed to ensure it does not harm the colonies and nesting birds. [94] For example, the northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head in New Zealand attracts 40,000 visitors a year. [28]

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). [95] [96] [97] 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 thirteen countries as of 2021 (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Spain, Uruguay, United Kingdom). [98]

Role in culture Edit

Many seabirds are little studied and poorly known because they live far out at sea and breed in isolated colonies. Some seabirds, particularly the albatrosses and gulls, are more well known to humans. The albatross has been described as "the most legendary of birds", [99] and have a variety of myths and legends associated with them. While it is widely considered unlucky to harm them, the notion that sailors believed that is a myth [100] 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. Sailors did, however, consider it unlucky to touch a storm petrel, especially one that landed on the ship. [101]

Gulls are one of the most commonly seen seabirds because they frequent human-made habitats (such as cities and dumps) and often show a fearless nature. Gulls have been used as metaphors, as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, or to denote a closeness to the sea in The Lord of the Rings, they appear in the insignia of Gondor and therefore Númenor (used in the design of the films), and they call Legolas to (and across) the sea. Pelicans have long been associated with mercy and altruism because of an early Christian myth that they split open their breast to feed their starving chicks. [35]

The following are the groups of birds normally classed as seabirds. [ citation needed ]

Sphenisciformes (Antarctic and southern waters 16 species)

Procellariiformes (Tubenoses: pan-oceanic and pelagic 93 species)

  • Diomedeidae albatrosses
  • Procellariidae fulmars, prions, shearwaters, gadfly and other petrels
  • Pelacanoididae diving petrels
  • Hydrobatidae storm petrels

Pelecaniformes (Worldwide 8 species)

Suliformes (Worldwide about 56 species)

Phaethontiformes (Worldwide tropical seas 3 species)

Charadriiformes (Worldwide 305 species, but only the families listed are classed as seabirds.)

  • Stercorariidae skuas
  • Laridae gulls
  • Sternidae terns
  • Rhynchopidae skimmers
  • Alcidae auks

For an alternative taxonomy of these groups, see also Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.

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