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Tuatara: Volume 21, Issues 1 and 2 (New Zealand Albatrosses and Petrels: an Identification Guide)

A Note on the Oceanic Birds

A Note on the Oceanic Birds

All birds discussed in this guide belong to a large, world-wide assemblage of seabirds known as the Order Procellariiformes (Latin: procella = storm). Collectively they are variously called petrels, tube-nosed or oceanic birds (Latin: Petrus = Peter, i.e. St. Peter's bird as they appear to walk upon the surface of the water). They page 13 are well named, because they spend most of their long lives at sea, returning to land for breeding purposes once a year (petrels), or once every two years (the great albatrosses).

The Order Procellariiformes is divided into four families; the albatrosses and mollymawks (Diomedeidae), the ‘true’ petrels comprising the fulmars, petrels and shearwaters (Procellariidae), the diving petrels (Pelecanoididae) and the storm petrels (Hydrobatidae). It may seem strange that the Great Albatross and little Storm Petrel are so closely related, but inspection of their respective beaks will clearly show why this is so. All procellariiform birds have separate horny plates covering their beaks and these, together with the nasal tubes being placed conspicuously on top of the bill (all petrels) or to either side of it (all albatrosses), distinguish these birds (i.e. the ‘tube-noses’) from all others (Figs. 6, 10, 14 and 17).

The wings are long and narrow for sustained gliding at which the petrels excel, and the tail is short and full for high-speed aerial manoeuvring. The plumage is dense and waterproofed with the aid of an oily secretion from the preen gland. Placed near the rear of the trim body, the short feet are powerful, the three front toes being fully webbed. There are no obvious differences in plumage pattern between the sexes, although in many cases the males are slightly larger.

The biology and behaviour of these oceanic birds will prove fascinating to those wishing to pursue more facts and information. Various field guides and reference books are cited under ‘Selected Bibliography’ (Appendix 2).