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Discovering the Fascinating Behavior of the Atlantic Petrel: From Flight to Foraging Breeding and Conservation

The Atlantic Petrel, also known by its scientific name Pterodroma incerta, is a medium-sized seabird that belongs to the Pterodromidae family. With its streamlined body and powerful wings, this bird is a master of the open ocean, spending most of its life in flight and covering vast distances in search of food and nesting sites.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Atlantic Petrel, including its identification, plumages, and molts.


Field Identification

The Atlantic Petrel can be identified by its distinct plumage, which features dark grey-brown feathers on its wings and back, and a white belly. It also has a white half-collar around the base of its neck, and a black cap extending to the eye.

Its bill is dark and slender, and its legs are pinkish.

Similar Species

The Atlantic Petrel can be confused with other Pterodroma species, such as the Soft-plumaged Petrel and the Cape Verde Petrel. However, the Atlantic Petrel can be distinguished by its heavier bill and darker cap, as well as its broader wings and more robust body.


The Atlantic Petrel goes through different stages of plumage throughout its life, which are known as molts. Molting is the process by which birds renew their feathers, and it is essential for their survival and adaptation to different environments.

The first plumage that the Atlantic Petrel acquires is known as the juvenile plumage. This plumage is characterized by dark brown feathers on the upperparts and a white belly.

The wings have a distinct pattern of dark and light feathers, and the bill is pinkish with a black tip. As the bird matures, it goes through its first pre-basic molt, during which it acquires its first basic plumage.

This plumage is similar to the juvenile plumage, but the bird has more white feathers on the upperparts, and the wings are broader. The bill also becomes darker.

After the first basic plumage, the Atlantic Petrel goes through several other molts, including the pre-alternate molt, the alternate molt, and the pre-basic molt. During these molts, the bird acquires new feathers that are adapted to different environmental conditions, such as breeding and migration.


One interesting fact about the Atlantic Petrel is that it has a peculiar molting pattern compared to other seabirds. Instead of molting all its feathers at once, the Atlantic Petrel molts its feathers in a sequential manner, starting with the innermost primary feathers and moving outward.

This molting pattern allows the bird to maintain its flight performance, as it is not grounded for an extended period. In conclusion, the Atlantic Petrel is a fascinating seabird that has unique characteristics that set it apart from other Pterodroma species.

Its distinct plumage and molting pattern make it a remarkable bird to observe in the wild. Understanding the identification and molting patterns of the Atlantic Petrel provides us with a better appreciation of the intricate mechanisms that allow birds to adapt to their environments and thrive in the open ocean.

Systematics History of the Atlantic Petrel

The Atlantic Petrel, also known as the Pterodroma incerta, is a medium-sized seabird that belongs to the Pterodromidae family. This bird has an intriguing systematics history that has been characterized by extensive debates and revisions.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the systematics history of the Atlantic Petrel, including its geographic variation, subspecies and related species.

Geographic Variation

The Atlantic Petrel is a pelagic bird that breeds on a few islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Its breeding range extends from the Tristan da Cunha group in the South Atlantic Ocean to the Crozet Islands in the southern Indian Ocean.

These birds are known to fly over extremely long distances, covering up to 70,000km per year.


Historically, the Atlantic Petrel was considered a monotypic species, meaning it was regarded as one single species with no subspecies. In the early 2000s, some ornithologists suggested that there were variations in the size and plumage of the Atlantic Petrel across its breeding range, thus suggesting that the bird had subspecies.

Three subspecies of the Atlantic Petrel have been suggested so far, with some studies suggesting up to five subspecies. These subspecies are proposed based on slight differences in the size and plumage.

The subspecies include P. i.

madeira, P. i.

incerta, and P. i.

deserta, with the first subspecies being the smallest and found in the Madeira Group, while the second is the largest and found in the Tristan da Cunha group and the Crozet Islands. The third subspecies is medium-sized and found in the Desertas Islands off the Madeira archipelago.

However, more studies are needed to corroborate the presence of subspecies in different Atlantic Petrel populations.

Related species

The Atlantic Petrel is part of the genus Pterodroma, which are a group of birds referred to as gadfly petrels. These petrels are mainly pelagic and breed on the islands in various oceans across the globe.

The two closest relatives of the Atlantic Petrel are the Galapagos Petrel (Pterodroma phaeopygia) and Henderson Petrel (Pterodroma atrata), both also from the Pterodroma genus.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Historical changes to the distribution of the Atlantic Petrel have been attributed to human activities and climatic changes. These birds are susceptible to disturbances caused by human activities such as oil extraction, hunting, and land-use conversion, which can lead to a decline in population sizes and reproductive success.

The commercial exploitation of island landscapes and pelagic waters where they feed may further lead to habitat loss and degradation, posing a threat to these birds. Climate change is another factor that has contributed to the changing distribution of the Atlantic Petrel.

The southern Ocean is said to be one of the fastest warming areas in the world. This oceanographic phenomenon is linked to the melting of ice sheets and its impact on ocean circulation patterns.

Atlantic Petrel breeding islands are amongst some of the first places where climate change impacts on seabirds are being observed. With continued warming across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, bird species like the Atlantic Petrel might face significant risks to their reproductive success and survival as they compete for limited resources and deal with altered weather patterns.

In conclusion, the systematics history of the Atlantic Petrel is complex, and the bird is still subject to taxonomic revision. It is evident that the geographic variation and differences in plumage of the Atlantic Petrel can lead to the suggestion of subspecies, but more research is needed to consolidate this evidence.

Further, human activities and climate change have significantly altered the distribution and breeding habitats of the Atlantic Petrel, posing a threat to their population size. It is crucial to conserve the breeding wards of such bird species and ensure their survival for future generations.

Habitat of the Atlantic Petrel

The Atlantic Petrel is a seabird that is widely distributed in subtropical and temperate oceans worldwide. As a pelagic bird, the Atlantic Petrel spends the vast majority of its life on the open ocean or foraging within the upwelling areas that are located offshore.

The preferred breeding sites for the Atlantic Petrel are steep, rocky cliffs found on remote oceanic islands. When the breeding season is over, these birds leave the islands and spend the rest of the year at sea.

While at sea, they are widely dispersed throughout the oceans and can be found foraging in pelagic waters.

Movements and Migration

The Atlantic Petrel is a highly migratory species that travels long distances to find food. During the breeding season, these seabirds remain in their breeding colonies and forage in nearby waters.

However, once the breeding season is over, many of these birds begin to migrate to feeding areas further afield. Studies have shown that some Atlantic Petrels travel across the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, covering distances of up to 70,000 km per year.

The seasonal movements of these birds are closely linked to changes in ocean weather patterns and the availability of food. One of the most significant oceanographic features that influence the movements and migration patterns of the Atlantic Petrel is the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which encircles the Antarctic continent.

This current is the worlds strongest ocean current and has a profound effect on the dispersal of planktonic organisms upon which the birds’ feed. The Atlantic Petrel has a highly developed olfactory sense, which enables it to locate food at considerable distances.

These birds rely on scent to locate food patches in the open ocean, which are often produced in nutrient-rich upwelling zones. They do so by turning their heads in search of scent particles that are carried from the direction of food sources.

Once they locate these areas, they glide above the waters surface with their wings outstretched or hover over the surface before diving into the water to catch prey. In addition to their long-distance movements and migrations, Atlantic Petrels also undertake shorter inshore movements related to offshore winds as they approach breeding colonies.

These movements are thought to be in response to the distribution and availability of prey, and they can take the birds away from their normal feeding areas.


The Atlantic Petrel is a remarkable seabird that inhabits open ocean environments worldwide. Despite the challenges faced by seabirds in the 21st century, these birds have survived by adapting to the changing ocean conditions.

Their movements and migratory patterns have been shaped by the availability of food and the distribution of ocean currents. As such, understanding the habitat preferences of Atlantic Petrels and their migratory behavior is crucial to ensuring the conservation and management of these remarkable birds in the future.

Diet and Foraging of the Atlantic Petrel


Atlantic Petrels are known to forage alone or in pairs, using a range of foraging techniques such as surface feeding, air swallowing, and plunge diving to catch prey. Surface feeding involves skimming across the water surface and picking food, such as squid or fish, from the water surface.

Air swallowing is another feeding behavior where the birds carry air in their mouths while swimming, allowing them to sink faster when they spot prey.


The Atlantic Petrel has a varied diet that includes small fish, squid, and crustaceans. These birds have a preferred feeding time.

They usually forage at night, following the diel vertical migration of mesopelagic organisms, that involves the daily pattern of moving up to shallow waters during the night for feeding, and deep waters during the day to avoid predation. This daytime avoidance strategy is efficient as they avoid predators such as sharks, orcas, and fur seals.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The Atlantic Petrel has developed unique physiological mechanisms to cope with life in the open ocean, where food scarcity is a common feature. These seabirds have low resting metabolic rates, which is the rate at which they burn fuel while resting.

This feature allows them to conserve energy and to survive for extended periods without food. In addition, the birds are also adapted to regulating their temperatures.

Seabirds are said to be homeothermic, which is the ability to maintain stable body temperatures by balancing heat exchange with the environment.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior of the Atlantic Petrel


Atlantic petrels use vocalization to communicate with conspecifics, but also as a means of locating prey. This bird uses an extensive range of vocalizations, including various wails, calls, moans, and croaks.

The vocalizations of these birds have been extensively studied, and researchers have found that they use a unique vocal repertoire. In particular, the song produced by the Atlantic Petrel is notable, consisting of a series of descending, cooing notes, repeated over an extended period.

Such vocalization may serve to identify and locate mates or to communicate with other members of the breeding colony. The Atlantic Petrel’s vocalizations are used not only during breeding season but also at sea when foraging, where they use calls to communicate to conspecifics about prey location.

Birds in the group use several calls and show individual variability, especially in the “kak” calls, which seem to be the social calls of the Atlantic Petrel. The pitch and the number of notes in the “kak” vocalizations vary quite significantly between individuals, which suggests they vary in dialects.


In conclusion, the Atlantic Petrel is adapted to life on the open ocean and employs a diverse range of feeding strategies and techniques that allow them to catch prey in varied ocean environments. The unique physiological mechanisms that these birds have developed enable them to survive in the harsh marine environment, where food scarcity is prevalent.

The birds also use vocalization as a means of communication and locating prey. These remarkable birds demonstrate the adaptations and behavior that enable them to thrive in one of the most challenging environments on the planet.

Behavior of the Atlantic Petrel


The Atlantic Petrel has a strong, distinct flight style, flying with deep wing beats that allow them to travel great distances at high speed. They spend long periods in flight and can soar effortlessly over waves for extended periods by using air currents and thermals.

When taking off from the water surface, the bird uses its wings to lift off and move rapidly through the water, before launching into the air.

Self Maintenance

Atlantic Petrels are fastidious cleaners, frequently preening their feathers and removing dirt, debris, and parasites. They also indulge in dust bathing to remove oil and dirt from their feathers, which aids in maintaining their waterproofing capabilities.

These behaviors ensure the integrity and insulating characteristics of their feathers, which help to maintain body temperature and prevent exposure to waterlogged feathers.

Agonictic Behavior

During breeding season, Atlantic Petrels are highly territorial and aggressive, with males fighting fiercely to establish and maintain their territories. Such behaviors are commonly observed in the air where males will engage in aerial displays, circling each other while calling loudly.

Sexual Behavior

Atlantic Petrels are monogamous in their pair bonds, with breeding pairs forming during their second or third year of life. The pair will establish a territory on a flat shelf on the breeding location, with the male constructing the nest, which is a shallow scrape or a shallow burrow under rocks or vegetation.

The female lays a single egg and incubates it for around 45 days, with both parents sharing the duties of parenting the chick, so-called biparental care.


Atlantic Petrels are colonial breeders, returning to the same nesting location each year. The birds breed on steep, rocky cliffs located on isolated and remote oceanic islands.

The breeding season usually begins in September and ends in April, with chicks hatching from late November to early December. The duration of breeding, as well as clutch size and overall breeding success, depend heavily on climatic conditions.

Demography and Populations of the Atlantic Petrel

The Atlantic Petrel is listed as globally vulnerable due to the small population size and rapid population decline in the past and ongoing issues facing this species. The primary threats affecting Atlantic Petrels are introduced predators, including rats, cats, and mice, which attack the eggs and chicks at breeding sites.

Climate change is also a significant threat to these birds, affecting their prey and altering oceanographic conditions, leading to changes in the distribution, availability, and quality of food resources. Several conservation initiatives have been set in place to protect the habitats and populations of Atlantic Petrels.

These measures include controlling the populations of introduced predators, raising public awareness about the threats facing the birds, and the implementation of monitoring programs to ensure the sustainability of the non-breeding and breeding populations.


In conclusion, the Atlantic Petrel is adapted to marine life, and they display remarkable behaviors that enable them to thrive in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Their flight and foraging adaptations equip them to traverse great distances and exploit food resources in remote oceanic regions.

The birds also display complex breeding behaviors, behaviors that ensure the survival of their offspring and the colonizing success of their breeding environments. It is essential to have a comprehensive understanding of the behavioral ecology of the Atlantic Petrel, as this is critical to the conservation and management of this magnificent bird species.

The Atlantic Petrel is a remarkable bird species that exemplifies the complexities of marine life. These birds exhibit unique adaptations and behaviors that enable them to thrive in some of the most challenging environments on the planet.

From their foraging strategies to their breeding behavior, the Atlantic Petrel has proven to be one of the most fascinating and enigmatic creatures to observe in the wild. Understanding the ecology and behavior of these magnificent birds is critical in preserving their populations and the delicate oceanic ecosystems in which they dwell.

Conservation efforts that take into account the Atlantic Petrel’s behavioral ecology will be crucial to their survival and the future of our planet’s oceans.

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