Birds – Wilson’s Stormy Petrel

(Oceanites oceancius)


Length—7 inches. Very long wings, with an extent of 16 inches, give appearance of greater size.

Male and Female—Upper parts, wings, and tail sooty black; paler underneath, and grayish on wing coverts. The upper tail coverts and frequently the sides of rump and base of tail, white, Bill and feet black. Legs very long, and webs of toes mostly yellow. Tail square and even.

Range—Atlantic Ocean, North and South America, nesting in southern seas (Kerguelen Island) in February; afterward migrating northward.

Season—Common summer visitor off the coast of the United States.

This is the little petrel most commonly seen off the coast of the United States in summer, silently flitting hither and thither with a company of its fellows like a lot of butterflies in their airy, hovering flight. Owing to the spread of their long wings they appear much larger than they really are, for in actual size the birds are only a trifle longer than the English sparrow, and look like the barn swallow; yet these tiny atoms of the air spend their “life on the ocean wave,” and have “their home on the rolling deep,”

” O’er the deep ! o’er the deep ! Where the whale and the shark and the swordfish sleep— Outflying the blast and the driving rain,”

like the stormy petrel of the east Atlantic (Procellaria pelagica), an even smaller species, which doubtless was the bird ” Barry Cornwall ” had in mind when he wrote his famous verses.

Those who go down to the sea in ships are familiar with the petrels that gather in flocks in the wake of the vessel, coursing over the waves, now down in the trough, now up above the crest that threatens to break over their tiny heads; half leaping along a wave, half flying as their distended feet strike the water, and they bound upward again; darting swallow-fashion and skimming along the surface, or flitting like a butterfly above the refuse thrown overboard from the ship’s galley. ” But the most singular peculiarity of this bird,” to quote Wilson, for whom it was named, ” is its faculty of standing, and even running, on the surface of the water, which it performs with apparent facility. When any greasy matter is thrown overboard, these birds instantly collect around it, and face to windward, with their long wings expanded, and their webbed feet patting the water, which the lightness of their bodies and the action of the wind on their wings enable them to do with ease. In calm weather they perform the same manoeuvre by keeping their wings just so much in action as to prevent their feet from sinking below the surface.” It is this appearance of walking on the waves, like the Apostle Peter, that has caused his name to be applied to them.

Particles of animal matter, particularly anything fat or oily,are what the petrels are searching for when they follow a ship; and seeing any such they quickly settle down to enjoy it, then rising again, soon overtake a vessel under steam. Their wing power is marvellous, yet when a gale is blowing in full’ blast at sea, these little birds are often blown far inland; the capped petrel, for example, that has its proper home in Guadeloupe, in the West Indies, having been found in the interior of New York state after a prolonged ” sou’easter.” The petrels swim little, if any, though their webbed feet are so admirably adapted for swimming, which might be a greater protection to them than flying when the storms blow. The lighthouses attract many to their death on the stern New England coast.

As night approaches the birds show signs of weariness from the perpetual exercise; for not only have they kept pace with a steamer through the day, but they have made innumerable excursions far from the ship, and played from side to side with a flock of companions at hide-and-go-seek or cross-tag until the eye tires of watching them. But by the time it is dark the last one of the merry little hunters has settled down upon the waves, with head tucked under wing, to rest until dawn while ” rocked in the cradle of the deep ” ; yet it is apparently the very same flock of birds that are busily looking for breakfast the next morning in the wake of the ship, which they must have overtaken with the wings of Mercury.

It would seem these innocent sea-rovers might escape persecution at the hands of man; but an English globe-trotter tells of seeing not only sailors, but passengers, too, who ordinarily feel only camaraderie for other fellow travellers on a lonely vessel, shoot these tiny waifs hovering about the ship, to break the tediousness of a long voyage. With the guilty con-sciences such sailors must have, it is small wonder the petrel is a bird of ill omen to them. They claim it is a harbinger of storms, like its large relative the albatross; and it might easily be, for it delights in rough weather that brings an abundance of food to the surface. All the gruesome superstitions which sailors have clustered around the birds of this entire family, in fact, were woven by Coleridge into his ” Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

According to Brunnich, the Faro Islanders draw a wick through the body of the petrel, that is oily from the eating of much fat, and burn the poor thing as a lamp.

Among the many senseless stories sailors tell of the petrel is that it never goes ashore to nest, but carries its solitary egg under its wing until hatched. But the members of the Transit of Venus expedition in the Southern Ocean, several years ago, discovered a large colony of these birds nesting on Kergulen Island. Heretofore, ornithologists, misled by Audubon, had confounded the nest of Wilson’s with that of Leach’s petrel. Nests containing one white egg each were found in the crevices of rock during January and February. In the latter month the author has seen the birds in great numbers off the Azores, but, unhappily, not on them, for the steamer did not stop there; however, it is not unlikely they nest on these islands, which would seem a convenient rallying place for the birds from the African coast and those that course along the Western Atlantic from Labrador to Patagonia. The young birds are fed by that disgusting process known as regurgitation, that is, raising the food from the stomachs by the parents, which Nuttall says sounds like the cluttering of frogs. Baskett writes in his ” Story of the Birds ” : ” The baby petrel revels in the delights of a cod-liver-oil diet from the start.”

Ordinarily quite silent birds, these petrels sometimes call out weet, weet, or a low twittering chirp that might be written peup. But it is near its nest that a bird is most noisy ; and until very recently the home life of this common petrel was absolutely unknown.

Leach’s, the White-rumped, or the Forked-tailed Petrel, as it is variously known (Oceandroma leucorhoa) was the bird carefully studied by Audubon, but confused by him with Wilson’s petrel, in which mistake many ornithologists followed him. In size and plumage the birds are almost identical, but the forked tail of Leach’s petrel is its distinguishing mark. The outer tail feathers are fully a half inch longer than the middle pair, making the bird look more swallow-like even than Wilson’s.

Leach’s petrels, while quite as common on the Pacific coast as on the Atlantic, have their chief nesting sites in the Bay of Fundy, while a few nest off the coast of Maine; for it is a more northern species than Wilson’s, Virginia and California being its southern boundaries. Nevertheless it is by no means so common off the coast of New England and the Middle States, except around the lighthouses, as Wilson’s petrel, that must migrate thousands of miles from the Southern Ocean to pass its summer with us.

Audubon noted that these petrels were seldom seen about their nesting sites during the day, but seemed to have some nocturnal proclivities; for they approached the shore after dark, and flew around like so many bats in the twilight, all the while uttering a wild, plaintive cry. But Chamberlain claims that one of the birds, usually the male, sits on its egg all day while its mate is out foraging at sea. ” When handled,” he says, ” these birds emit from mouth and nostrils a small quantity of oil-like fluid of a reddish color and pungent, musk-like odor. The air at the nesting site is strongly impregnated with this odor, and it guides a searcher to the nest.” Sailors have dubbed them with numerous vile names on account of this peculiar means of defense.

A few bits of sticks and grasses laid at the end of a tunnel burrowed in the ground, at the top of an ocean cliff, very much as the bank swallow constructs its nest, make the only home these sea-rovers know. Such a tunnel contains one egg, about an inch to an inch and a half long, and marked, chiefly around the larger end, with small reddish-brown spots. In most respects Leach’s petrel is identical with Wilson’s, and the reader is there-fore referred to the fuller account of that bird.