Seabirds Are Also Known as Pelagic Birds

Black-Browed Albatross

Ed Dunens/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Pelagic describes a bird that spends a significant portion of its life on the open ocean, rarely venturing close to land except to breed. Pelagic birds may be found hundreds or thousands of miles offshore and are powerful fliers that can remain aloft for hours while gliding or soaring.

Pronunciation: puh-LAA-jik
(rhymes with magic and tragic; the "AA" sound rhymes with cat, fat, and bat)

Also Known As: oceanic bird, seabird, marine bird

About Pelagic Birds

Pelagic birds are very unique in the avian world. While there is no doubt they are birds, they have some outstanding characteristics that are found among no other types of birds in the world.

  • Pelagic birds have exceptionally long, thin wings that allow them to fly effortlessly for long periods without rest. In fact, the wandering albatross has the longest wingspan of any bird in the world (8-12 feet from wingtip to wingtip), and the gray-headed albatross holds the record for the fastest level flight of any bird (79 miles per hour). Some pelagic birds can stay aloft for days or weeks at a time, and will even sleep in flight.
  • In many cases, true pelagic birds only return to land to nest and breed. While they may land on the water's surface to rest occasionally or will float briefly after hunting and feeding, they can spend most of their lives in the air. When they do return to land, they often prefer rocky, cliff-lined coasts and offshore islands where strong air currents can help them take flight again.
  • Many pelagic birds have special salt glands that help extract excess salt from their bodies. This allows them to drink seawater and ingest water from their oceanic prey without accumulating toxic levels of salt in their bloodstreams. Birds with tube-like bills are called "tubenoses" because of this gland structure.
  • While seabirds face many threats, if they are able to avoid those hazards, pelagic birds can be remarkably long-lived. The oldest recorded living bird is a Laysan albatross named Wisdom who was banded in 1956 and lived to at least the age of 65, successfully raising chicks well into her senior years.

In addition to these remarkable characteristics, pelagic birds also share other traits that unite them as distinctive seabirds. These birds are highly piscivorous and feed on fish, squid, and crustaceans, though how they forage can vary significantly. Some pelagic birds are adept divers and will plunge into the water to catch prey, while others skim the surface after shallow-swimming fish. Others are brazen thieves and steal prey from other birds or even seals, sharks, and whales. Many pelagic birds also eat offal from fishing ships or trash dumped into the ocean. Unfortunately, plastic trash and debris such as floating, deflated balloons or fishing nets can be tragically hazardous for many seabirds.

Pelagic Bird Species

There are dozens of pelagic bird species with a great range of sizes and geographic distributions. While the exact birds that are considered truly pelagic can vary depending on the characteristics assigned to seabirds, the most familiar types of pelagic birds include:

  • Albatrosses
  • Frigatebirds
  • Fulmars
  • Petrels
  • Shearwaters
  • Tropicbirds

For many birders, other types of birds heavily dependent on the sea, including puffins, murres, boobies, auks, and penguins, are also considered pelagic species.

Near-Pelagic Birds

There can be some disagreement about what makes a bird species truly pelagic and just how dependent on the ocean such birds must be to be officially classified as seabirds. Some birds are so heavily associated with coastal habitats and ocean sightings that they are considered near-pelagic birds, even though they are not seabirds in the formal sense. These almost-seabirds include:

  • Cormorants
  • Gulls
  • Pelicans
  • Sea-Ducks
  • Skimmers
  • Skuas
  • Terns

While these types of birds do often share one or two characteristics with true seabirds, they lack all the distinguishing features of pelagic birds such as the salt glands, the ability to stay aloft for days, and rarely returning to land.

Seeing Pelagic Birds

Because pelagic birds are often found only far out to sea, they can be challenging to add to a life list. One of the best ways to learn more about pelagic species and to see a greater variety of species is to take a pelagic birding tour. The time of year and location of such a trip can make a vast difference in bird sightings, however. When planning a pelagic trip, bear in mind that marine environments can be just as varied and unique as land environments and different seabirds have distinctly different ranges.

Freshwater pelagic birding can be an interesting opportunity as well, though most species seen on freshwater trips will be near-pelagic birds rather than true pelagic species. Birding on a cruise vacation can also yield some pelagic sightings, depending on ports of call and cruise routes.