Black Storm-Petrel

Oceanodroma melania

Order:
Procellariiformes
Family:
Hydrobatidae
Sections

Behavior

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Black Storm-Petrels in flight.

At sea, flight is slow and deliberate, with deep wing beats interspersed with long glides. Mainly flies angled to the wind; avoids flying with a tail wind.

© Nicole Desnoyers , California , United States , 1 October 2016
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Black Storm-Petrel foraging.

When feeding, like many storm-petrel species, often flies into the wind, more or less hovering with feet pushing off the water surface; called "pattering."

© Brad Singer , California , United States , 20 August 2016
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Black Storm-Petrel on water surface.

Swims on surface by paddling webbed feet.

© Nigel Voaden , Oaxaca , Mexico , 27 March 2015
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Raft of Black Storm-Petrels.

Forms "rafts" composed of many individuals resting closely packed on the sea surface during the day. Birds often asleep with head tucked into scapulars.

© Chris Wood , California , United States , 28 September 2007
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Black Storm-Petrel flock.

Forages singly or in loose flocks at sea, depending on dispersion of prey. Mostly forages singly, but can forage in mixed-species flocks of seabirds, especially shearwaters, as well as in the company of marine mammals, such as this killer whale (Orcinus orca).

© Robert McNab , Baja California Sur , Mexico , 20 August 2016

Locomotion

Walking

Shuffles on tarsi. Walking on feet assisted by flapping wings.

Flight

Flight at sea is slow and deliberate, with deep wing beats interspersed with long glides; similar to that of Black Tern (Chlidonias niger) or a nighthawk (Chordeiles spp; 4, 5). Mainly flies angled (cross) to the wind; avoids flying with a tail wind (14). Flight is swift, but speed is dependent on wind strength and direction relative to flight, as follows: flight speed with tail wind = 7.31 m/s + 0.455 w; cross wind = 5.68 m/s + 0.211 w; or head wind = 5.77 m/s + 0.037 w (where w = wind speed in meters/second; 14, 15). Reported to outdistance a skiff traveling 42 km/h (30).

When feeding, like many storm-petrel species, often flies into the wind, more or less hovering with feet pushing off the water surface; called "pattering" (77). At night in the colony, fluttering flight likened to that of bats or butterflies (78, 43).

Swimming and Diving

Swims on surface by paddling webbed feet. Dives for prey to at least 1 m deep, first by flying up, stalling, and then hurdling head first to penetrate water surface (71, DGA). Likely uses wings (or feet) for assistance once beneath sea surface.

Self-Maintenance

Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Bathing

Adults and chicks preen and scratch in the burrow; adults preen and scratch at sea. Birds in rafts often stretch wings, especially before taking flight.

Sleeping, Roosting, Sunbathing

Forms "rafts" composed of many individuals resting closely packed on the sea surface during the day. Birds often asleep with head tucked into scapulars. As described by Miller (66) in vicinity of Tanner Bank off San Diego, likened to "black patches [on the sea] like kelp flies so close together to be inseparable to the eye. Some rafts were 100 yds [~90 m] long and several rafts were visible at once." A single double-barrel shotgun discharge killed 37.

Daily Time Budget

Arrives at nesting colony after complete darkness, corresponding to the time at which most Western Gulls (Larus occidentalis; see Predation, below) on the island have ceased aerial activity (30, 1). Typically, several arrive immediately upon total darkness, and circle within 8 m of the ground in vicinity of nests (1). Every 5–10 s, they gave the 4-syllable Flight Call (see Sounds and Vocal Behavior: Vocalizations). Aerial activity peaks within first hour after darkness (e.g., 21:00–22:00) at the latitude of Islas Coronado, then tapers to midnight, after which little calling heard for a time. Judging from vocalizations, flight activity increases again about 02:00, with a peak and then followed by a rapid decline at 04:00 as birds depart the island. Under a clear sky and bright moon, the pattern of activity and calling is altered. Overall, fewer birds arrive on such nights, and gulls are much more active. Activity continues as normal until moon-rise (if late), at which point activity decreases dramatically. Early-evening arrival also exhibited at the Farallon Islands (off San Francisco) by the Ashy Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma homochroa), which forages locally, as opposed to the late-night arrival of the Leach's Storm-Petrel (O. leucorhoa), which forages much farther away (79).

Agonistic Behavior

Behavior little known owing to nocturnal, burrow-dwelling life at the colony. As in Ashy Storm-Petrel (2), a shuffle or half-flight toward an opponent, often with a rasp or churr call, forces the other bird to depart. When foraging over a large item, chases other individuals away, looping back to continue pattering (DGA, contra Crossin [30]).

Spacing

Territoriality

At the colony, nest spacing determined by size of boulders in talus or rock falls; nests can be < 1 m to many meters apart; more than 1 pair may use same cavity entrance (1).

Individual Distance

At sea, mostly forages singly (DGA). Forms rafts of dozens to hundreds of birds, within centimeters of one another, resting on sea surface during the day (see Self-Maintenance, above).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System and Sex Ratio

Little known. As in other storm-petrels, apparently monogamous, with 1:1 sex ratio confirmed by DNA analysis (n = 73; P. Quillfeldt, J. F. Masello, unpublished data).

Pair Bond

Courtship displays or copulation not observed; occurs in nesting chamber. No instances of mate-switching among 39 nests that were studied for 2 years on Islas Coronado (1).

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree of Sociality

Loosely colonial in nesting, but highly territorial of nest chamber. Forages singly or in loose flocks at sea, depending on dispersion of prey. Roosts communally by rafting on sea surface (see below).

Play

None known.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Mostly forages singly, but can forage in mixed-species flocks of seabirds, especially with shearwaters, as well as in the company of marine mammals (61, DGA). The tendency to form intraspecific foraging flocks was assessed by an "index of sociability" score (number of individuals seen divided by number of sightings) of 2.2; this index ranked Black Storm-Petrel as average among 14 storm-petrel species of the eastern and central Pacific observed at sea (range of index 1.1–6.7, with 5 species being more social; 30). Large roosting rafts mostly homogeneous, but can include other storm-petrel or petrel species (DGA).

Nests in association with other seabird species, such as Black-vented Shearwater (Puffinus opisthomelas), Least Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma microsoma), Ashy Storm-Petrel (O. homochroa), Leach's Storm-Petrel (O. leucorhoa), Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), Brandt's Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus), Pelagic Cormorant (P. pelagicus), and (most commonly) Double-crested Cormorant (P. auritus), Western Gull, Heermann’s Gull (Larus heermanni), Craveri's Murrelet (Synthliboramphus craveri), Scripps’s Murrelet (S. scrippsi), Guadalupe Murrelet (S. hypoleucus), and Cassin's Auklet (Ptychoramphus aleuticus); competes for and/or shares nesting cavities with latter four alcids (80, 81, 20, 30, 82).

Predation

Kinds of Predators, Manner of Predation

Adults taken on the wing at sea by Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus; 43), and by Western Gull (Larus occidentalis) at colonies when collided with at night (30, 1, 64). According to A. B. Howell (in 73) they "suffer considerably from the depredations of the duck hawks [Peregrine Falcon], as their remains on the islands [Islas Coronado] bear mute witness." Peregrine Falcons once nested on most of the "seabird" islands within the breeding range of Black Storm-Petrel (see field notes of D. DeGroot 1930, E. N. Harrison 1932, Western Foundation for Vertebrate Zoology). Owls likely take them, as well, as owls are known to take other storm-petrel species (see 2, 64). Common Raven (Corvus corax) dig out adults and chicks on Islas San Benito (YBG). Small endemic foxes (Urocyon littoralis) and skunks (Spilogale gracilis amphiala) on the California Channel Islands may have limited breeding by storm-petrels there through predation on adults, eggs, or chicks (see Demography and Populations: Population Regulation). Cats (Felis catus) and rats (Rattus spp.) introduced to nesting islands prey on adults and chicks and, it is supposed, have devastated populations wherever introduced (1, 49, 64). See Conservation and Management.

On many islands within the breeding range laudable efforts over the last 25 years have resulted in the removal of non-native animals from numerous (but not all) islands, both in the Gulf of California and off the west coast of California and Baja California (e.g., 64, 83, 84). Despite these efforts and extensive field work in the last 25 years this species has not been documented breeding on more than 5 islands in the Gulf.

Response to Predators

No defense to mammalian predators, with which they have not evolved. Island nesting, under natural conditions, is their only defense against such predators. Less vulnerable to falcons if resting on the water rather than airborne. Nocturnal visits to nesting islands likely a strategy to avoid aerial predators.

Recommended Citation

Everett, W. T., Y. R. Bedolla-Guzmán, and D. G. Ainley (2019). Black Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma melania), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.bkspet.02