Large, heavy, and swift, Northern Gannets are powerful diving birds that live near the Atlantic coasts of North America. Adults of this species are a radiant white, complete with black wingtips and golden hues on their crown. Their dazzling appearances and flashy dives have made flocks of these gannets a spectacle when they hunt. These birds have excellent vision that helps them locate their prey before they make their dives. They sometimes reach a depth of almost 72 feet as they hunt.
When birders were cataloging the variety of species of birds in the late 18th century, they categorized Gannets under the genus morus. This name was derived from the Ancient Greek word for foolish, “moros”. This name came about when modern biologists observed their lack of fear during the breeding seasons, often leading to them being killed. The aggression of these birds has not changed much since then. This aggression is hardly aimed towards humans unless their nesting colonies are disturbed.
Northern Gannets have fascinated mankind since their early interactions with them, with references to these majestic birds going back over a thousand years in ancient and medieval literature. Today, we will be discussing these birds in more detail. We will be talking about:
● Northern Gannet Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Northern Gannet Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Northern Gannet Range and Migration, Nesting
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Northern Gannet Color Pattern
Both sexes of adult Northern Gannets look very similar to each other. Adults are largely white except for a yellowish-buff to golden tinge on their crown and nape, fading to whitish on the forehead, throat, and lower neck. These features contrast with their black wingtips, black primary coverts, and black-and-white lesser wing feathers. During the breeding seasons, the golden crown and nape of males are relatively more intense than those of females. Their bills are pale blue to grayish-blue, with serrated mandibles and black nasal grooves on each side of the upper mandible. The bare skin of their faces is mildly dark blue-gray, a base that brings out their orbital ring of cobalt blue in their eyes. Their irises are clear, pale, and blue-grey, a striking sight brought out by the cobalt blue orbital ring. Their legs are fully webbed and are grayish-black. Males have a vivid yellowish-green line through their feet while females have a bluish-green line.
Juveniles look different from adults and are grayish-black overall. They are speckled with white throughout, with the exception of their wings and tail. A prominent white V-shaped feathered patch is visible on their lower rump. Their bills are initially black but slowly turn into gray. Their feet, legs, and the line on their toes are all black. They have dull bluish-grey eyes. It typically takes 3-4 years for juveniles to assume their adult plumages, but the nature of their molt is relatively erratic. There is much variation within and between the different age groups of juveniles as they molt.
Description and Identification
Although these birds spend most of their time at sea, they are visible from many beaches by the Atlantic Coast when they hunt. Between late fall and early spring, observers can find up to a few hundred flying around in the distance. You can also find these birds in huge nesting colonies on cliffsides during the breeding seasons. Nonbreeding months take them towards New York and North Carolina, where they may be harder to spot but can be visible with a pair of binoculars.
Northern Gannet Song
Northern Gannets are very noisy birds. While there is little information on what their various vocalizations mean, floods of birds around the coasts give out loud calls that help them in navigating through the air and underwater. These calls make it easier for these birds to not bump into each other as they hunt.
Adults of both sexes make an “a arrrr, arrrah”, or “urrah rah rah” sound as they land. It is called the “landing call” and is a loud, harsh call that is given at a rapid pace which increases in both loudness and rate as landing approaches. They also give this call out while bowing, menacing, and fighting. The quality of the call varies depending on the situation and can be a brassy note of deafening volume or a gruffer and less metallic tone. While at sea, they may utter a soft “kruk kruk”, including while diving and swimming on the surface.
Chicks give out cheeping calls in the initial stages after hatching, but later they make an intense yip sound when calling for food. They may make excited yapping calls that sound like the barking of a small dog as well, this is mainly done in aggression towards trespassing chicks from other nests.
Northern Gannet Size
Northern Gannets are the largest seabirds of the North Atlantic coasts, being nearly albatross-sized at 36.4-43.3 inches long and 87.7-127 ounces. Males tend to be slightly larger in length while females are generally heavier, but the difference is typically no more than 3 inches in length and 5 ounces in weight. They have a long pointed tail and bill, along with large broad, tapering wings along their sides.
Northern Gannet Behavior
Northern Gannets are strong fliers that take deep, powerful beats with their wings while occasionally gliding and soaring. They shorten their wingspan and strokes in higher winds to effectively maneuver through the fast currents. They soar at considerably high heights, at speeds around 37 mph. Their strong durability means that the adults are capable of flying through storms. However, juveniles may be blown off-course by strong winds. They are also excellent swimmers, which they commonly do as they roost on water. They swim with the head and tail held above the water while paddling with their webbed feet. On land, they waddle and appear to walk with some difficulty.
These seabirds are also monogamous, with pairs remaining together for a lifetime. They have a social system that involves large breeding grounds called a gannetry, thousands of birds nesting close to each other. Young birds may also return to their colonies in the second or third years, often forming smaller groups of birds that hunt and rest together within the gannetry. Males begin to advertise for their breeding grounds after their third or fourth year,
displaying by shaking their heads from side to side, biting the nest sites, and stretching their necks towards females. Clashes between males at nest sites are common and frequent, with hostile behaviors involving locked bills and pushing at the cliff edge. Injuries are also common.
After mating, males and females greet each other in elaborate ways. Males shake their heads while females offer their napes for the male to nibble on. They also touch each other while calling and shaking their heads from side to side as their bills clack together. They bow to each other and then finally preen each other’s backs at the end of their greeting display.
Northern Gannet Diet
Northern Gannets are piscivores that feed on fish. They favor shoals that swim near the surface, with their diet mainly including herring, mackerel, Atlantic saury, sand lance, capelin, smelt, pollack, menhaden. They also feed on crustaceans like shrimp and squid. Flocks that are prevalent around Iceland also feed on coalfish, whiting, cod, haddock, sand eel, sprat, and pilchard. The serrations present in their upper mandible help them maintain a grip over
the slippery texture of the fish. They are also opportunistic in taking advantage of resources, foraging near fishing vessels, and taking discarded bycatches while diving into nets after captured fish.
Northern Gannet Habitat
You can find these majestic seabirds almost exclusively in saltwater wetlands. They generally spend their time along the Atlantic Coast but may sometimes hunt in the brackish mouths of large rivers. Vagrants also occasionally turn up at freshwater bodies around the Great Lakes region, although this is a rare occurrence. They avoid arctic waters and spend most of their lives from the altitudes of eastern Canada to North and South Carolina. You can also find Gannets at the edge of the water in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the lack of prey in very deep waters, they tend to remain over the continental shelf around coastal regions. Cliff ledges at the edges of bays and oceans are a necessity for them during the breeding seasons, as those are the sites they select for nesting.
Range and Migration
Usually, you can only find Northern Gannets along the Atlantic Coast. They breed along the coasts of Canada and migrate short to medium distances southwards to the southern end of Florida and the Gulf Coast to Texas. Immatures tend to move further south than the adults, as they are less suited to colder weather in comparison. Some immatures may also remain south of their breeding grounds during the summers until they reach sexual maturity. Many adults also winter far offshore in areas as north as New England.
Northern Gannet Lifecycle
After the pair mates, the females lay a single egg in their only brood of the year. The egg is pale blue to white but becomes stained with the nest after some time. Both sexes incubate as they take turns to hunt for food. Eggs hatch after 42-46 days, with both parents taking turns feeding the chicks by regurgitation. Their first flight lasts around 84-97 days.
These birds nest at the edge of the sea, on rocky cliffs, and sometimes on flat ground and slopes. Most nests are on the windward side of a headland, as it provides the birds a sufficient location to help the birds in take-off and landing. Males select the nesting site during the breeding season. However, nest building only occurs after the pair has mated.
Most of the nest is built by the males, who start with a scrape before carefully working along the sides. They sometimes include odd objects from the sea, including household items in their nests. The resulting nests measure around 12 inches across and 8 inches above the ground, although rare occurrences show that nests can be over 40 inches tall as well.
Anatomy of a Northern Gannet
Northern Gannets are heavy-bodied, large seabirds with long, pointed wings, tails, and a bill. They are suited for the water because of their webbed feet, and their specially adapted eyes that allow them to see underwater immediately after diving. Their eyesight is excellent, and they are significantly agile in both water and air. These birds are larger than Great Black-backed Gulls but are smaller than Brown Pelicans.
Some of the earliest mentions of these radiant gannets are from Homer’s Odyssey, where he refers to them as metaphors for a white goddess appearing. Other references from the literature include multitudes of 7th-century poems around the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and England. For as long as these birds have been observed by mankind, they have fascinated them.
Their populations have remained fairly stable for most of history, but contamination of the oceans has negatively impacted them quite a bit. Like other seabirds, toxic contaminants like plastic and other trash make them vulnerable. Their habit of foraging within fishing nets also leads to some birds getting entangled and drowning. Overfishing has also led to a scarcity of prey in some areas along the coasts. While they have been officially categorized as a species of Least Concern, their continued survival depends on the actions of human beings in the future. So, if you happen to visit the Atlantic Coasts and want to catch a glimpse of the sights Homer once saw, keep your eye out for graceful, loud, golden-crowned birds gliding above the waves.
Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes
At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.
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Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Northern Gannets
The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Northern Gannets are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.
Northern Gannet Stickers
Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Northern Gannet. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.
Bird Feeders For Northern Gannets
There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.
Best Bird Houses For Northern Gannets
There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.