Which seabird was named after the old Viking word for “foul”?

Which seabird was named after the old Viking word for “foul”?

I am a northern fulmar. My name was derived from old Viking language of “ful” meaning foul and “mar” meaning gull.

There are around 500,000 northern fulmars that breed in colonies throughout Britain on steep cliffs at places such as St Kilda (Outer Western Isles, Scotland), Foul (Shetland), Dunstanburgh Castle (Northumberland), Flamborough Head and Bempton Cliffs (Yorkshire), Skomer, south Wales and Lizard Point, Cornwall.  Worldwide there are an estimated 20 to 30 million, inhabiting primarily the subarctic regions of the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

We are sea birds that feed in the open ocean and although we look like gulls, we are members of the petrel family that includes shearwaters and albatrosses. If you visit Britain, you should have a good chance of seeing one of our northern fulmar breeding colonies, whereas elsewhere you either have to travel great distances into remote parts of the country or wait until one passes you by on migration.

We are known as “tube-nosed” because of a protruding nasal gland at the base of our bill, just above our eyes, that removes salt from our diet. This allows us to drink sea water. Also, we are one of the few birds with a sense of smell that permits us to detect our prey.

Size-wise, you might consider the northern fulmar large, weighing 1.5 to 2 pounds (700 to 900 grams), and our wingspan is between 3 and 4 feet (1 to 1.2 meters). Our head and the short, thick neck and underparts are white, and make us look heavy-set, whereas the upperparts, the upper wings, and the short tail, are grey. Thanks to our broad wing span, our flight is effortless as we glide close to the water using occasional stiff wing beats to propel us in search of food. As we pass by, you may be able to see a red dot at the end of our beak. Both sexes look alike although, as a male, I may be slightly larger than my partner.

It’s at breeding time that we are the most visible to birdwatchers. We nest on land, choose the same mate each year and incubate usually one egg laid in April on a ledge of bare rock or grassy cliff. You might think that one egg risks extinction at some point. However, because we are one of the longest living birds in Britain, surviving up to 40 years, this is unlikely. We defend our nest by spitting some foul-smelling stomach oil at whatever threatens us, and it’s this trait that gives us our name. We don’t discriminate; we even spit at humans if they get too close.

The food we catch is regurgitated to feed our young, and we enjoy a diet of fish, sand eels, jellyfish, squid, plankton and shrimp, and sometimes fish offal when we follow behind fishing vessels. Once our chicks leave the nest, immature birds spend their first four years at sea. Adults also spend much of their time over the water, although in Britain, we do not to migrate significant distances, preferring to spend our time during winter close to our breeding sites. Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, it is not unusual for fulmars to travel long distances, from remote nesting places, across oceans and down the coastlines, to forage for food.

It’s ironic that we are on the British “watch” list (amber category) of birds that need special conservation attention.  People worry that we might be suffering from a worsening shortage of food because of over-fishing and warming waters that affects the supply of plankton, which in turn reduces the number of available sand eels. We have fewer fishing boats to chase and there is a new risk of ingesting plastic litter. Finally, we have to put up with the traditional natural threats such as being eaten by foxes, and our eggs scavenged by skuas, rats and squirrels.


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