Gannet, Booby, and Solan-goose are the names variously applied to the members of this small family. The first, and perhaps most widely employed, is Gannet, a word derived apparently from the Old English gan, after the manner of gander and goose. The simple or foolish appearance of the birds, especially when on land, furnishes an explanation of the name Booby, while the last mentioned, or Solan-goose, is seemingly from the Scandinavian, signifying “Sea-goose.”
The Gannets, or Boobies, are large birds, ranging from about twenty-eight inches to thirty-six inches in length, with rather long, very pointed wings, and a long, wedge-shaped tail of twelve to eighteen feathers. The bill is stout, sub-cylindrical and pointed, tapering gradually toward the extremity, which is very slightly curved but never hooked. The nostrils are completely closed in the adults, a provision, as will be seen later, against injury while feeding, and in several of the species there is a naked band of greater or less length down the middle of the throat, while in the remaining species the whole upper part of the throat is naked. In a majority of the species the plumage is white throughout except the wings and tail, which are usually black or dusky; in the other species the color is dusky or sooty brown.
The Gannets are birds of temperate and tropical seas, and are often found at great distances from land. Their food consists entirely of fish, especially herrings, the presence of which they often indicate to fishermen. “Their prey,” says Newton, “is almost invariably captured by plunging upon it from a height, and a company of Gannets fishing presents a curious and interesting spectacle. Flying in single file, each bird, when it comes over the shoal, closes its wings and dashes perpendicularly and with a velocity that must be seen to be appreciated, into the waves, whence it emerges after a few seconds, and shaking the water from its feathers, mounts in a wide curve, orderly takes its place in the rear of the string, to repeat its headlong plunge as soon as it again finds itself above its prey.” Chapman says: “They are most impressive when diving, as with half-closed wings, like great spearheads, they descend from a height of about forty feet with a force and speed that takes them wholly out of sight, and splashes the water ten feet or more into the air.” Although they are not provided with a throat pouch, as are several of their relatives, the throat is greatly dilatable, which permits them to swallow fish of considerable size. They are said never to carry fish to their young in their bills, but to feed them by disgorging. They nest in communities, often of vast extent, on rocky and inaccessible islands and headlands, building but a rude nest of a few grasses and seaweeds. One or two eggs are laid, which are described as being elliptical in form, with a rough, dull white or chalky white surface; the size is about three and one half by one and three fourths inches.