The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), the best known of Northern Hemisphere petrels, is the only representative of this ancient group of tube-nosed birds (order Procellariiformes) breeding in the Arctic, except for storm petrels of the Hydrobatidae family. The range of the northern fulmar is split between the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans and adjacent Arctic seas.
The northern fulmar is a medium-sized stocky seabird, noticeably larger than the kittiwake. Body mass is typically 750 g, and wingspan is about 115 cm. Their bills are rather short and strong, with nasal tubes. As in other tube-nosed birds, a sense of smell is well developed in the fulmars. Fulmars are rather gulllike birds, but with a stiff-winged gliding flight (making them look like miniature albatrosses) alternated at times with rapid wing beats. In calm weather they "paddle" for some distance over land or sea, their webs fully spread, before they achieve enough lift to become airborne.
The polymorphic plumage of the fulmar ranges from birds that are all white except for a dark eye-mark to those that are uniformly dark gray. Sexes are alike.
The Icelandic name fulmar means "foul gull." Fulmars are petrels and the name undoubtedly was given because of their superficial resemblance to gulls, and in reference to the bird's oil-spitting habit. All petrels defend their "individual distance" by spitting stomach oil, and the northern fulmar is particularly dextrous, shooting gobs of oil with sudden lunges of its open beak. The Russian name glupysh means "foolish", and refers to the birds' trustfulness. The birds are easily caught even by landing-net from the boat while they feed on offal from fishing boats. The Norwegian name is havhest.
The breeding range includes north Pacific (from the Chukchi Sea south to the Aleutian and Kuril Islands) and north Atlantic (Novaya Zemlya, Franz Josef Land, Svalbard, Greenland, Iceland), spreading to the Canadian Arctic archipelago. The southern range is Brittany in the eastern Atlantic and southeastern Labrador. Fulmars are divided into different races according to plumage color and bill size. In the Atlantic thick-billed and mainly dark birds occur in the High Arctic, while slender-billed and mainly light-colored birds occupy the low Arctic and boreal areas. In the Pacific, the situation is the opposite, with light-feathered birds predominating in northern areas. There is a hypothesis that the two morphs originated in different oceans—the dark-feathered birds in the Pacific. During warm interglacials, introgressions of dark morph genes into the gene pool of the Atlantic birds occurred, resulting in the present confusing "mix." In the Southern Ocean, there is a sibling species—the Antarctic or southern fulmar, which is considered an ancestor to its northern relative.
Like albatrosses and other petrels, fulmars are typical pelagic birds; they travel offshore a lot, prospecting far beyond the breeding range. Birds searching for food for their chicks have been found as far as 1000 km from the nesting sites. Dispersal south is mainly by young birds, who occasionally can penetrate the subtropics. Fulmars, however, are not typical migrants following a certain flyway, but are rather nomads.
Fulmars breed in colonies numbering in the Arctic up to hundreds of thousands of birds, while in boreal areas their settlements are much smaller. Fulmars generally nest on steep coastal cliffs occupying narrow ledges, mostly on the upper parts with a high density reaching eight nests per square meter. Nests can also be found on flat ground, hillsides, and even in human habitation, sometimes many kilometers inland. The colonies are chiefly shared with other seabirds.
As most other true seabirds, fulmars are long-lived birds with a low reproductive rate. They become sexually mature by 6—12 years, and adult survival is extremely high resulting in a 34—35-year lifespan (the oldest recorded is 43 years).
A single large whitish egg is laid directly on the ground in the open or in a shelter. Incubation is by both parents for some 50 days. The male takes the first and longest stint, presumably to let the female fly back to sea to recover after laying. Mass hatching occurs during early-mid July. Newly hatched chicks are brooded and guarded for 2 weeks. They are fed on a soup of partly digested fish, crustaceans, squid, and the stomach oil. Growth is rapid in polar regions, and by the seventh week they exceed their parents' weight. First fledglings appear at sea in late August to early September, and slightly later in the High Arctic.
The fulmars are superior flyers; they are stiff-winged and use much dynamic soaring exploring the food resources of the open oceans. At sea the birds generally remain dispersed but can gather in huge flocks when food is abundant, and actively follow vessels. Fulmars also swim well and much prey is taken by surface seizure and by scavenging. Fulmars are seldom seen diving, but do so occasionally.
Fulmars consume a great variety of food, including crustaceans, cephalopods, and smaller pelagic molluscs, fish, offal, and carrion. There are many observations from the intensive whaling in the early 19 th century that enormous numbers of fulmars assembled around the dead whales. Today, the commercial fisheries apparently serve an equally important food supply for the fulmars as whaling did. It is common to observe thousands of fulmars around fishing vessels. The abundant food that became available as a result of whaling and commercial fishing is considered to account for a major range expansion and population explosion observed in pale-plumaged fulmars of the eastern Atlantic. The process seems to have begun about 200 years ago in Iceland, the colonizations spreading south in the Faroes, Britain, Norway, and France.
In spite of the clear picture observed in the North Atlantic, the reasons and mechanisms of the fulmar's population dynamics are not evident. There is no increase observed in the High Arctic, and in some places in the north Pacific the opposite trend is recorded.
The fulmar's eggs and flesh were once considered delicacies and were eaten in large numbers, and their oil was used extensively for lamps. Nowadays, human predation has declined, but not stopped. Northern fulmars appeared to be the only tube-nosed birds known to transmit a disease fatal to man (viral ornithosis).
Fulmars are subjected to many threats, including contamination by organochlorines (DDT), which have been found in the birds in relatively high concentrations, and swallowing of plastic, which is found frequently in their stomachs. Fulmars are commonly caught in the long-line fisheries, and are considered vulnerable to oil spills. Nevertheless, none of the threats mentioned above are documented to have affected the populations, and the species thrive almost all over the range, with total numbers estimated at 4,000,000-16,000,000 pairs.
See also Seabirds Further Reading
Cramp, S. & K.E.L. Simmons (editors), The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Volume I, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977
Del Hoyo, J., A. Elliot & J. Sargatal (editors), Handbook of the Birds of the World, Volume. I, Barcelona: Lynx Edicion, 1996
Fisher, J., The Fulmar: The New Naturalist, London: Collins, 1952
Shuntov, V.P., Trudnaya professiay albatrosa [The difficult occupation of albatross], Moscow: Nauka, 1993 (in Russian)
Warham, John, The Petrels, Their Ecology and Breeding Systems, London: Academic Press, 1996
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