The Petrels take their name from the fact that they often appear to walk on the surface of the water, as the Apostle Peter is said to have done, the word being derived from the Latin petrellus, meaning literally “little Peter.” They of course do not actually walk on the water, but the bodies of some species are so small and light that they are able, with only the slightest seeming exertion, to keep the moving feet just touching the water, and then they may seem to be walking on its surface.
The Petrels constitute a large, well-marked group of birds embracing upward of twenty genera and one hundred species, of which number more than thirty have been found in North America. They are strictly birds of the ocean, never venturing near the land except at the breeding season, and even then they seem in haste to be gone. “None of the Petrels,” says Professor Newton, “are endowed with any brilliant coloring sooty black, gray of various tints (one of which approaches to and is often called “blue”), and white being the only hues is their plumage exhibits; but their graceful flight, and their companionship where no other life is visible around a lonely vessel on the wildest oceans, gives them an interest to beholders.” In distribution the Petrels are found throughout all seas and oceans of the world, but they are most abundant both in kinds and individuals in the Southern Ocean.
Their powers of flight are almost if not quite equal to those of the Albatrosses, as they are known to follow a vessel for days at a time, apparently not needing or caring for rest. However, they all swim readily and it is probable that individuals really rest for a few minutes in the water and then easily overtake the ship without their absence having been noticed. In the manner of nesting, the Petrels differ quite markedly from the Albatrosses, as they nest in holes among rocks usually on the face of a cliff, occasionally in holes made by burrowing animals of various kinds, or among tufts of grass or other plants, while not a few of the species excavate holes or burrows for themselves in the ground; rarely the egg is placed on the bare rock without the pretense of a nest. These burrows are of considerable length and frequently turn and double on themselves, and when available nesting sites are limited, or the ground is especially hard in which it is necessary to dig, it appears that several birds may combine forces. Thus on the Bird Rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Palmer speaks of having found four females and five eggs of Leach’s Petrel in a single hole, but ordinarily there is only one occupant. The Petrels lay but a single egg, which is white, frequently tinged, when perfectly fresh, with very pale blue. The eggs of many species are entirely unmarked, while those of others are more or less spotted with rufous on the large end. They usually sit closely when incubating the egg and are removed from it or their burrow with difficulty, not to say danger. Of this peculiarity in Rodgers’s Fulmar of the Pribilof Islands, Elliott says: “It is of all the water fowl the most devoted to its charge, for it will not be scared from the egg by any demonstration that may be made in the way of throwing or yelling, and it will even die as it sits rather than take flight, as I have frequently witnessed.” Kidder also graphically describes the actions of various burrowing species as observed by him on Kerguelen Island. The dog belonging to their party habitually dug them out of their holes for food, and they “were generally brought to the surface hanging to his ear.” Petrels are mainly nocturnal in their habits, at least during the nesting season, and their presence may be entirely unsuspected in the daytime. To quote again from Kidder regarding the Whale-bird (Prion Desolatus): “Upon first landing, the hillsides, apparently deserted during the day, became at night perfectly alive with these birds, flying irregularly about the rocks and hummocks of Azorella, and filling the air with their calls.” Their crepuscular habits, combined with the fact that they usually seek isolated places for nesting, make their study difficult, and we are still in ignorance of the nests and eggs of several species.
The food of the Petrels is also more or less in doubt. The stomachs of those examined appear to contain oil, but whether this is the usual food is not known, and it seems more than probable that the minute animals so abundant in tropical waters supply a considerable share.
As already stated, the Petrels never voluntarily visit the land except for nesting purposes, but they are frequently driven out of their course and often far inland during severe storms. A remarkable case of this kind was recorded some years ago, when, during a violent storm of several days’ duration, two specimens of the Sandwich Island Petrel, a bird found normally in the vicinity of the Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos Archipelago, and Canary Islands, were secured in an exhausted condition in the city of Washington. A single specimen had previously been found dead on the shore of England, and one or two are recorded from Scandinavia. In their natural wanderings these birds may have passed around Cape Horn and up into the North Atlantic, where it is now known a colony of them has been established in the Madeiras, as specimens have recently been received from there, and as a matter of fact it may be added the species was first made known from the Canaries. The specimens taken in Washington were the first ever noted in North America, though very recently an example has been captured in Indiana. The Black-capped Petrel, whose home is around Guadeloupe Island, in the Lesser Antilles, has been captured, probably just after a tropical hurricane, in Virginia, over 200 miles from the sea, in New York State, and also in Hungary. That the Petrels, strong flying as they are, are frequently destroyed during storms, is well shown by Buller in his ” Birds of New Zealand.” He says regarding the little Dove Petrel: “This charming little Petrel is extremely abundant off our coasts, and I have often observed flocks of them on the wing together numbering many hundreds. In boisterous weather it appears to suffer more than any other ocean species from the fury of the tempest, and the sea beach is sometimes found literally strewn with the bodies of the dead and dying. I have frequently watched them battling, as it were, with the storm,till at length, unable longer to keep to windward, they have been mercilessly blown down upon the sands, and, being unable from sheer exhaustion to rise on the wing again, have been beaten to death by the rolling surf or pounced upon and devoured by a hovering Sea-Gull.”