Northern Fulmar

Fulmarus glacialis

  • Version: 2.0 — Published November 27, 2012
  • Mark L. Mallory, Scott A. Hatch, and David N. Nettleship

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Figure 1a. Distribution of the Northern Fulmar in North America.

This species also breeds in Europe and Asia. See text for details.

Light-morph Pacific Northern Fulmar, Monterey Bay, CA, 13 January.

A typical light morph of the Pacific subspecies F. g. rodgersii. Note the darker tail characteristic of this subspecies. There is a greater range of plumage variation in Pacific birds, with white and dark extremes occurring in addition to the typical light and dark morphs. On all Northern Fulmars note the relatively short wings, stout body, thick neck, and short, thick bill. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

The Northern Fulmar, a "tube-nosed" bird related to petrels and shearwaters, is abundant in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic, though few people ever see the species on land in those regions because it tends to be highly aggregated in a few remote breeding places. By contrast, fulmars in the boreal zone of the northeast Atlantic Ocean-Iceland, the Faeroes, and the British Isles, in particular-are ubiquitous because of a spectacular increase in their population and breeding distribution during the last 250 years. This increase and its possible causes are well documented and much debated.

Fulmars exhibit color morphs ranging from mostly white with a light gray mantle to uniformly dark gray, including every gradation between the extremes. There is no generally accepted explanation for this polymorphism. Individuals of different colors mate indiscriminately, although in many colonies most or all of the birds are of one type. Reproduction is slow-most individuals defer breeding for 8-10 years, and pairs produce at most 1 egg per year. Not surprisingly, then, fulmars also rank among the longest-lived birds known. Individuals that reach adulthood have a mean life expectancy of greater than 30 years, and some breed over a period of 40 years or longer.

Renowned scavengers on offal that is generated by industrial fishing and whaling operations, fulmars also take a wide variety of fish, squid, and macrozooplankton (especially copepods and amphipods) from waters at or very near the sea surface. They probably do much of their foraging at night and may use olfactory cues in locating food-their sense of smell is highly developed. Like other petrels, fulmars emit an unpleasant, musky odor that is not only evident when the birds are handled, but also unmistakable as one approaches a breeding colony or a large flock over water from downwind. In recent years, fulmars from both Pacific and Atlantic populations show high proportions of ingested plastics in their diet, and are a bio-monitor of this environmental pollutant in Europe.

Fulmars are familiar birds at sea and figure prominently in many at-sea surveys in both the Atlantic and the Pacific portions of their range. To date, however, the only detailed investigations at breeding colonies in North America have been conducted by the authors of this account-from 1976 through 1981 at the Semidi Islands, western Gulf of Alaska (SAH), from 1975 through 1978 on Prince Leopold Island in the Canadian Arctic (DNN), and from 2003 through 2006 at Cape Vera on Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada (MLM). From a scientific standpoint, fulmars have long enjoyed a wider following in the Old World, where James Fisher, for example, devoted more than 30 years to the study and documentation of the spread of Atlantic fulmars. Equally notable is work by the late George Dunnet and associates, who in 1950 initiated a long-term study of fulmars at a small colony on Eynhallow in Scotland-a study that continues today led by Paul Thompson. The latter work is especially valuable for elucidating certain aspects of life history that can be revealed only through long-term monitoring of marked individuals in this long-lived species, such as the effects of changing climate on reproduction and survival.

Recommended Citation

Mallory, M. L., S. A. Hatch, and D. N. Nettleship (2012). Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.