Wilson's Storm-petrel photo by Dave Jones

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Seabirds | Seabird Characteristics Page 1 |Comments |

Seabird Characteristics Page 1

What is a Seabird?
Which Groups of Birds Are Generally Included
Food Gathering and Feeding the Young
Water Intake

Cory's Shearwater photographed by John Slovin.

What is a Seabird?
There is really no hard and fast definition of a seabird. Some birders consider a seabird to be any bird they have to go out on a boat trip to see. These trips are commonly referred to as pelagic birding trips which is somewhat misleading as these the term pelagic refers to waters beyond the continental shelf and these trips seldom leave the waters over the continental shelf.

In this discussion, seabirds are birds that spend most of their life feeding and living on the open ocean coming to land only to breed. The Wandering Albatross spends 95% of its life at sea.

Seabirds do not comprise a taxonomic or evolutionary group of birds and while some birds are always included in books on seabirds, there are others that may be included by one author and not another.

Seabirds that belong to diverse taxonomic groups show similar characteristics and it is these similarities that we discuss here.

Others use the term marine birds or oceanic birds.

Which Groups of Birds Are Generally Included?

Penguins are seabirds who have given up the ability to fly in favor of swimming and diving to great depths. With the exception of the Galapagos Penguin they live and breed in the southern hemisphere although it is not true that they only live where it is very cold. Penguins do not associate with Polar Bears which are confined to the far north except in beer commercials.

Alcids are seabirds who both fly and swim with their wings. Alcids are now confined to the northern hemisphere. The extinct Great Auk was flightless.

Tubenoses or Petrels - Order Procellariformes
This group is distinguished by having their nostils enclosed in tubes. Four families of seabirds make up the order:
Diomedeidae (Albatross)
Procellariiade ( Fulmars, typical petrels, prions, shearwaters)
Hydrobatidae (Storm-petrels)
Pelecanoididae ( Diving-petrels).
Pelicans and Boobies - Order Pelecaniformes
The Pelecanifo
rmes include: Gannets, Pelicans, Boobies, tropicbirds, cormorant, and frigatebirds. Some of these birds are of great interest to pelagic birders while others are more commonly viewed and studied from land.

Skuas and Jaegers Family  Laridae
In the same family as the gulls and terns, the skuas and jaegers are colonial breeders and are fiercely territorial. The northern hemisphere jaegers breed on the arctic tundra and lay two eggs on the ground.

Gulls, Terns   Family  Laridae
Gulls and terns are also considered seabirds although many gulls have been lured inland and some live out their lives on large bodies of fresh water like the Great Lakes. This web page will include two gulls of special interest to pelagic birders and two terns usually seen on pelagic trips.

Ducks, Loons, Grebes
Some of the ducks commonly called seaducks must also be mentioned and some authors include loons and grebes. Another term waterbirds is sometimes used to include the ducks, loons and grebes which are included in seawatch programs.

Phalaropes are actually shorebirds Family Charadriidae.  Two birds: Red Phalarope, and Red-necked Phalarope breed on the tundra and winter on the open ocean usually close to shore.  Since these birds are usually seen on pelagic trips this web page includes them as seabirds.


What Is A Seabird Next Page 2

Page author: Emmalee Tarry