As their name suggests, seabirds are birds which live in a marine environment. They come in all shapes and sizes, but all show a range of adaptations to their ocean-going lifestyle.
To celebrate World Oceans Day, which took place on 8th June, we thought we would take a closer look at some of the fascinating birds which make the oceans their home.
Like many seabirds, the colourful puffin spends most of its life at sea, only returning to land once a year to breed. This much-loved, rather comical bird only develops the distinctive colours on its beak during the breeding season. It typically nests in large colonies on offshore islands or on inaccessible cliffs with grass slopes, excavating a burrow into which it lays a single egg.
Masters of the air
With the largest wing area to body mass ratio of any bird, the great frigatebird is wonderfully adapted to an aerial lifestyle, and is able to soar almost effortlessly above the ocean for long periods. This species lacks waterproof plumage and doesn’t spend time on water, instead taking food from just above or on the surface of the sea, or pirating it from other birds in the air. The male great frigatebird has a distinctive appearance, with a conspicuous red pouch on the throat which is inflated like a balloon during courtship.
The quintessential ‘seagull’, the herring gull is one of the most familiar seabirds in the northern hemisphere. Like many gulls, this species is a supreme opportunist and scavenger, able to take advantage of almost any available food source. While at sea, herring gulls quickly gather at areas of high food abundance, including around boats. This versatile species can also live inland, and even commonly nests on buildings in cities.
With a wingspan of nearly two metres, the gannet is the largest seabird in the North Atlantic. This species is known for its breathtaking dives, in which it plunges into the ocean, often from considerable heights, before catching its fish prey underwater. The gannet shows a number of adaptations that allow it to survive hitting the water at speed, including nostrils which open inside the mouth to prevent water entering them, and air sacs in the face and chest to cushion the impact.
The wandering albatross has the largest recorded wingspan of any living bird, reaching a massive 3.5 metres across. These impressive wings allow it to glide effortlessly across the ocean, and the wandering albatross spends most of its life in flight, often travelling huge distances around the southern oceans. This long-lived species does not start breeding until it reaches 9 to 11 years old, and pairs mate for life.
A tiny seabird barely larger than a sparrow, the European storm-petrel is superbly adapted to life at sea. Like other storm-petrels, it belongs to a group of seabirds known as ‘tubenoses’ due to their conspicuous, tubular nasal passages, which give them an excellent sense of smell and help them to find patchily distributed prey at sea. Its small, hooked beak enables it to grasp its slippery prey, while a gland in the nose is used to expel excess salt from drinking seawater. The European storm-petrel mainly hunts on the wing, dipping its beak into the water while pattering its feet along the surface.
The guillemot is a member of the auk family, a group of seabirds which have been described as the northern hemisphere equivalent of penguins. Unlike penguins, these birds can fly, as well as being excellent swimmers and divers. The guillemot nests on cliff ledges, and its eggs are conical in shape to prevent them rolling off. When the young guillemot leaves the nest it has to take a risky plunge into the sea below, accompanied by the adult male, who will then continue to care for it at sea.
Icons of the Antarctic
Penguins are among the most popular of all seabirds. Found only in the southern hemisphere, these flightless birds are often associated with the Antarctic, although some species actually live as far north as the equator. With wings developed into flippers and legs set far back on the body, penguins are excellent swimmers, and their waterproof, scale-like feathers help to keep them warm and dry. A true Antarctic species, the Adélie penguin is found around the Antarctic continent year-round, and is capable of deep dives to find the krill and fish on which it feeds.
A large, comical-looking seabird, the blue-footed booby is instantly recognisable thanks to its bright blue feet. The name ‘booby’ comes from the Spanish word for ‘fool’ or ‘dunce’, referring to the clumsiness of these birds on land. The blue-footed booby usually nests in large colonies and mates for life, with pairs performing an elaborate courtship display which involves alternately lifting each blue foot, pointing the head and beak skywards and spreading the wings.
Perhaps surprisingly, some duck species spend most of their lives at sea. The largest duck in the northern hemisphere, the common eider breeds on offshore islands, rocky coasts, or pools in tundra, but outside of the breeding season it is found in shallow marine habitats. Traditionally, the down feathers of this species have been used to fill pillows and quilts. The common eider dives underwater to catch crustaceans and molluscs, particularly mussels, which it swallows whole, crushing the shells in its gizzard.
Read more about World Oceans Day on the ARKive World Oceans Day blog, and have a go at our virtual scavenger hunt!
View more photos and videos of seabirds on ARKive.
Do you have a favourite seabird? Let us know!
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author