Quick Facts

Wingspan: 1.5 feet

Weight: 1 lbs

Population: 1000 breeding pairs

Location: Antarctic Peninsula & continent

Diet: Fish, krill, squid, mollusks, carrion

Nests: Pebble lined scrapers in rock crevices

Description & Characteristics:

Several species of petrel in a wide ranging group of families can be found in the Antarctic. Most petrelsl have a skittering, skimming-type flight; hence their name, which means ‘Little Peter” for the Apostle who walked on the water with Christ on the Sea of Galilee. All petrel species have dense plumage, webbed feet and deeply grooved and hooked bills. Many species of petrel breed in dense colonies on cliffs and steep rocky slopes, some of them 60 miles or more from the open sea on inland nunataks and mountain ranges. Petrels typically have long nostrils, indicating a strong sense of smell, unusual for birds. On human-inhabited islands, introduced cats and rats have severely reduced some populations of diving and burrowing petrels. Interestingly, most petrel species can regurgitate their stomach oil as a defense mechanism against predators.

Giant Petrels

Largest of the petrel family, Giant petrels, unlike albatrosses, forage on both land and sea. On land, they kill birds as large as King penguins and scavenge in seal colonies. At sea, they eat fish, squid and crustaceans, scavenging dead whales and seabirds, as well. Their carrion-feeding reputation earned them the nickname ‘stinkers’ from whalers, however, they do possess a certain charm and they are unquestionably magnificent fliers.

Antarctic Petrel

The Antarctic petrel is a boldly marked dark brown and white petrel, a little smaller than the Antarctic fulmar. They are mostly found in the Ross Sea region. Eggs are laid in November after the adults arrive at their nest sites the previous month. Chicks fledge in March.The rest of the year, the colonies are deserted while the birds stay at sea among and just north of the pack ice. They eat Antarctic krill, fish, and small squid taken by surface-seizing, dipping and shallow diving.

Cape Petrel

The Cape petrel, also known as the ‘painted one’ because of the striking pattern on its back and wings is a dark brown-black and white petrel smaller than the Antarctic Petrel. They breed on cliff ledges. An commom ‘ship-follower,’ the Cape petrel eats just about anything edible thrown overboard. These pigeon sized birds nest on the sea cliffs and in rock crevices and can live for 15 to 20 years.

Great-winged Petrel

The Great-winged petrel is an all dark-brown gadfly petrel found in the ‘Roaring Forties.’ They breed in winter and lay a single egg in May to July in burrows excavated out of vegetated peat slopes. Chicks fledge in November and December, just when the summer-breeding burrowing petrels are getting started. Like most burrowing petrels, Great-wings arrive at their burrows after dark, to reduce their chances of being caught by predatory Antarctic skuas. Great-wings eat primarily squid caught at night.

White-headed Petrel

The White-headed Petrel is a burrowing petrel with dark wings, a white head with a dark eye and a pale body and tail. They breed in summer, laying a single egg in burrows they excavate in the soft peat of tussock grassland. Their diet includes crustaceans, squid, and lantern fish, caught by surface-seizing. White-heads are not rare and their population probably numbers in the low hundred thousands.

Atlantic Petrel

The Atlantic petrel is one of the largest gadfly petrels, recognized by its striking white breast and belly in contrast to the rest of its plumage which is uniformly brown. Population is in the low tens of thousands. They breed in burrows in winter, with chicks being fed in October. They feed mainly on squid and fish.

Wilson’s Storm Petrel

The tiny Wilson’s storm petrel is thought by many to be the world’s most abundant seabird. They are regular ship followers and are associated with whales. They lay a single egg in December in burrows and rock crevices in cliffs, rocky slopes and scree banks. They eat mainly copepods and krill, as well as small squid and fish.

Other species of petrel include: Black-bellied petrels, White-bellied petrels, Grey petrels, Small Grey-backed Storm petrels, and the White-Chinned petrels, White-Faced Storm petrels, Blue petrels, Prions, and Kerguelen petrels.

Did you know?

  • Old-time whalers used to call Giant Petrels ‘breakbones’ because of their frequent blood-stained brawls over carrion meat.
  • Diving petrels are small seabirds with stubby wings that seem to whir like wind-up toys as they buzz about the sky in perpetual motion.
  • Where most petrels flap and glide, diving petrels actually ‘fly’ under water quite similar to penguins.
  • Storm petrels are the smallest and lightest seabirds in the world.
  • The Wilson’s Storm-petrel skips across the surface of the water as it feeds, stirring up small marine organisms with its feet.
  • Wilson’s Storm petrels feed while on the wing, skimming and pattering with their feet over the sea surface.
  • White-chinned petrels have been called ‘cape hens’ and also ‘shoemakers,’ the latter based on their call, which resembles that of a cobbler hammering shoes.

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