Birds – Stormy Petrels

Perhaps the most interesting of all the Petrels, or at least those about which there clusters the most of poetry and superstition, are the little Stormy Petrels (Procellaria), which may be taken as the type of the sub-family Procellariinae. They are known at once by their small size, their bodies being no larger than that of an English Sparrow, and their length not exceeding six inches. The general color of the plumage is a sooty blackish, somewhat paler or more sooty grayish below, set off by a conspicuously snow-white rump.

They are preeminently birds of the ocean, never approaching the land except during the nesting season or when driven there by extraordinarily severe gales,and as they are perhaps most frequently seen just before or during a storm, attracted doubtless by the minute animals upon which they probably feed, then found at the surface of the sea, they have come to be regarded with superstition by sailors, and many a dire calamity has been predicted on their presence. Sailors call them “Mother Carey’s Chickens”; “but not, as might be imagined from such a name, of any tender regard or feeling of affection for the birds. Mother Carey is supposed to be a kind of ocean witch, a supernatural Mother Shipton, who rides the blast, and who has for attendants and harbingers the little Dark-winged Petrels.”

But on the other hand, by exhibiting their wonderful power of endurance, they may pelagica. storm-tossed mariners. A wellknown writer, after describing a tempestuous voyage, says, “It was some relief to the extreme monotony and misery of our situation, to watch the movements of these fairy-like beings as they danced among the surging billows, running with fluttering wings in the hollow of the waves, and hovering over their foaming crests with the lightness of summer butterflies.” Of the two species the true Stormy Petrel (P. Pelagica) is found in the North Atlantic, south to the Newfoundland Banks and the western coast of Africa. It is apparently only a transient visitor to American waters, perhaps not breeding, its principal nesting grounds being along the Atlantic coast of Europe, especially the Scilly Islands, the Orkneys, and Shetlands. It is gregarious during the nesting season, which does not begin until June, and places its single white, minutely speckled egg in rabbit or Puffin burrows, under a rock or heap of loose stones, or even in ruined walls. The bird is a close sitter, remaining in its burrows until dragged out, and when taken in the hand ejects a small quantity of strong-smelling, amber-colored oil from the mouth. The other species known as the Galapagos Stormy Petrel (P. Tetlys) is found in the vicinity of the islands of Least and Leach’s Petrels that name and on the coast of South America. It is slightly larger and has the upper tail-coverts entirely white and the tail slightly emarginate instead of even or rounded.