Educational Series: Seabirds, World Travelers of the High Seas, Are in Crisis

By Nick Engelfried
Seabirds are among the natural world’s most impressive world travelers. With migration routes that may span entire oceans, they cover distances almost no other animal will venture in its lifetime. Their streamlined bodies and paraglider-like wings are designed to keep them aloft above the open seas, where they may go months or years without touching land. Indeed, some seabirds come to land only in order to breed and raise their young. These ocean wayfarers are also a diverse group, ranging from crow-sized shearwaters to albatrosses with enormous wingspans. For centuries, seabirds have captivated the imaginations of coastal peoples and seafarers. However, today they face a highly uncertain future.

Overfishing, plastic pollution, and a host of other threats caused by modern humans are making life increasingly difficult for seabirds. As a result, today there are estimated to be 70 percent fewer of them than there were in 1950. It is essential that we act now to ensure these winged wonders continue to soar above the Earth’s oceans.

The term “seabird” does not refer to any one family of birds. Rather, it is a word used to describe various species who have adapted to life on the high seas. Gulls, terns, albatrosses, frigate birds, skuas, pelicans, cormorants, shearwaters, and many others are all considered seabirds–and while some stay near the coast and are familiar sights on beaches, others spend the bulk of their lives far from land. What all seabirds have in common is that they are at home flying or gliding above the water for long periods of time. The diversity of species who have evolved this lifestyle shows how lucrative it can be–for those who are able to adapt to the harsh conditions of the open ocean..

Albatrosses are the biggest seabirds. In fact, with wings that stretch eleven feet from tip to tip, the wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any flying bird on the planet. These huge winged travelers can cover 600 miles in one day as they traverse the southern oceans, from warm subtropical waters to the harsh Antarctic seas; an individual albatross may circle Antarctica multiple times in a year. They can be very long-lived, reaching up to 50-60 years in age, and the young birds take several years to mature. Juvenile wandering albatrosses stay at sea for 5-10 years before reaching adulthood and returning to their nesting grounds on remote southern islands to breed. Thanks to their sail-like wings, wandering albatrosses are superb gliders who can stay in the air for hours without flapping.

Though not as big as an albatross, some seabird species cover even longer distances on their migrations. The sooty shearwater, for example, is a crow-sized bird whose migration route follows a figure-eight pattern through much of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. These smallish birds travel an astonishing 40,000 miles every year, starting at their breeding grounds in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile and following food and warm weather into the Northern Hemisphere. The related great shearwater makes an annual journey that is almost as impressive, taking it from the cold waters off Eastern North America to nesting grounds on the remote Tristan de Cunha Islands in the South Atlantic.

Although some seabirds may not touch down on land for years, this does not mean they spend all of the intervening time in the air. They can and do alight on the water, especially to feed. While you might assume that all seabirds eat fish, some actually prefer marine invertebrates. Wandering albatrosses feed largely on octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid, which they grab from the water with their beaks after alighting on the waves. Getting airborne again can be challenging for such a big bird, which must face into the wind and flap its wings vigorously to lift off.

However well adapted they might be to life far from land, all seabirds must eventually come ashore to breed and raise their chicks. Many species nest in remote areas, such as islands located hundreds of miles from the nearest continent. Others travel surprisingly far inland to raise their young and have eluded researchers trying to track down their nesting sites for years. In 2017, scientists finally discovered the first known nesting ground for the ringed storm-petrel, over forty miles inland in Chile’s Atacama Desert where the birds nest in natural rock cavities.

Somewhat similarly, in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, marbled murrelets fly as far as fifty miles inland to lay their eggs in natural nests made from moss on the branches of old-growth trees. Nesting where few other animals can reach has advantages, allowing seabirds to raise their young in relative safety. However, over the last couple centuries human interference with even the most remote environments has put seabirds at risk.

Tree-nesting marbled murrelets are something of an exception, as most seabirds nest on cliff faces, rocks, or even in underground burrows. This leaves them vulnerable to ground-dwelling invasive predators like rats, which have been accidentally introduced in even some of the most remote parts of the world. In the late 1700s, Norway rats escaped a shipwreck onto one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, which eventually came to be known as “Rat Island.” The exploding rat population devastated the island’s murres, puffins, and aucklets, who were soon nearly absent from a place where they once nested by the thousands. In 2008, the Nature Conservancy began a massive, successful effort to eliminate rodents from Rat Island, which is now known by its Indigenous name, Hawadax Island. As a result, seabird populations have begun to rebound.

Unfortunately, not every seabird conservation story has as happy an ending as that of Hawadax Island. Climate change, declining fish stocks, and plastic pollution jeopardize the survival of entire species, who find themselves starved of food or choking on the waste of our industrial society. Images of albatross caracasses whose stomachs burst with swallowed plastic have become ubiquitous on the internet as a grisly reminder of the consequences of our actions for even the most distant parts of the planet.

With their migration routes spanning oceans and nesting sites on islands where humans rarely set foot, seabirds serve as a global barometer of our environmental impact. This means the best way to guarantee their future is to work toward shifting our relationship with the larger natural world–an undertaking that will help countless other species, too. From calling on companies to reduce plastic pollution to urging our elected representatives to act on climate change, we can all be advocates for the fragile ecosystems that support these winged travelers of the high seas.

Photo credit: Liam Quinn

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Which statement is NOT true of the wandering albatross?
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Which of these seabirds nests in old-growth trees?
In what country would you find a ringed storm-petrel nesting?
True or false: Wandering albatrosses may live as long as 60 years
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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