Birds who spend all or part of their time in a marine environment are often referred to as seabirds. It is a very diverse group of bird families including pelicans (Pelecanidae); gulls and terns (Laridae); and true seabirds including albatross (Dromedeidae), petrels (Procellariidae), and storm petrels (Hydrobatidae). Seabirds can be found on all seven continents and inhabit a variety of habitats from the cold Arctic and Antarctic waters to the tropics. With hundreds of miles of coastline bordering Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean, Washington State is a year-round home to many species of seabird and a winter home to many more.
Some members of this group such as Brown Pelicans and gulls are very recognizable due to their large size, and can commonly be seen in urban areas along the coast. However, other species including true seabirds spend their entire lives at sea, only coming inland to raise their young, and are not easily seen at all.
Did you know? “Seagull” is a misnomer as most gulls don’t go out to sea. They stick along the coast inhabiting mostly lakes, rivers, marshes and cities.
Seabirds range in size from the small Least Storm Petrel, with a 7-inch wingspan, to the Wandering Albatross which has the largest wingspan in the world at 10.5 feet. Seabirds are typically shades of brown, black, gray and white. Most have plump bodies, long wings for soaring great distances, and have webbed or lobed feet. Some species, such as the Double-crested Cormorant (seen below) have bright features during the breeding season that are otherwise dull in color during the rest of the year. Generally, seabirds are not sexually dimorphic; but females and males may differ somewhat in size.
Seabirds in the order Procellariiformes have what is referred to as a tubenose. Their nostrils are enclosed in one or two tubes, which gives them a good sense of smell and removes secretion from the salt glands.
Seabirds are uniquely adapted to life on the water and have extremely dense waterproof feathers, layers of fat to insulate against cold water, and a system to excrete salt. Many are long-lived and have delayed sexual maturity.
Aside from gulls and cormorants, most seabirds have extreme difficulty walking on land. Their anatomy is specialized for swimming, with their legs situated far back on their bodies. They can launch themselves forward, but are unable to stand for extended periods or walk more than a few steps at a time on land.
Seabirds have small clutches of altricial young who require parental care for long periods of time after hatching. In fact, seabirds have one of the longest chick-rearing stages in the bird kingdom. Due to the amount of time and energy required, both of the parents typically care for the young.
Did you know? Seabirds can spend three to four months raising their chicks. Great Albatrosses rear their chicks for over nine months!
Seabirds are either surface feeders or forage divers. Surface feeders feed on the plankton, krill, forage fish, squid and other prey items that are at the surface of the ocean by flying at the surface or dipping their head while swimming. Surface feeders have unique bills that allow them to filter out plankton or hook fast-moving prey.
Forage divers either pursuit dive or plunge dive to catch their prey. Diving requires more energy and is harder physiologically than surface feeding but more abundant and diverse food is available below the surface. Pursuit divers use their wings or feet to propel themselves underwater to chase and catch prey. Plunge divers catch their prey by diving into the water from flight.
Did you know? Brown Pelicans take several years to be good at plunge diving. Once mature, they can dive from 70 feet above the water’s surface.
Common seabird species in Western Washington
Living with seabirds
As most seabirds along the Pacific Northwest spend their time on the coast, gulls are the most commonly seen family of birds in and around the Seattle area. They are opportunistic feeders and attracted by the food waste that people leave behind. Gulls have a tendency to roost in areas where they are unwanted.
Eliminate gull roosting sites
The most effective way to avoid conflicts with gulls is to eliminate roosting sites or make your property unappealing to the birds. If you property is near the water, this can be a challenge.
- If the birds are simply using the peak of a roof, deterrents such as bird spikes can be installed to make the perch less desirable.
- If they are utilizing an area that is too extensive to be covered by spikes, try visual deterrents, sonic emitters or other annoyance tactics such as spraying the birds with a hose when they try to land.
- CAUTION: Avoid using gels or other sticky and tacky products that are advertised as bird repellents. More often than not, the birds do not see these greasy substances until they land on them. PAWS receives birds every year who suffer tremendously because their feathers have become coated after landing in these substances.
Do not attract gulls
In addition to eliminating roosting sites, don't intentionally or unintentionally attract gulls.
- Never purposely feed gulls. Putting out bread, French fries or other human foods for gulls is not only unhealthy for the birds, but it attracts them in large numbers. Birds who get used to being fed in an area will frequent that area, likely roosting on nearby roofs or structures.
- Deny gulls access to unnatural food sources on your property, such as your garbage. Gulls do not generally knock over garbage cans, but they may pick through an uncovered can or take advantage of a can that has been knocked over by a dog or other animal.
- Dispose of trash in secure, metal cans with tight-fitting lids.
- Secure lids further with a bungee cord or chain, or store in a locked shed.
- Do not put food of any kind in open compost piles.
- Bury food in an underground composter or put it into a lidded worm box (read more about composting from Seattle Tilth).
Seabirds can get stranded on beaches, especially during the fall and winter when coastal storms churn up oceanic waters. Many species migrate to the coast from inland lakes in the fall. They form large feeding flocks that are highly susceptible to local storms or other disturbances.
During strandings, hundreds of seabirds can wash ashore, their feathers so soiled that they are unable to return to the frigid waters to feed without fear of drowning or hypothermia. There are many confirmed and suspected causes for these strandings including rough winter storms, algae blooms, overfishing, and various diseases. Once seabirds become exhausted from being stranded, lose their ability to keep waterproof, and become hypothermic and sick, they cannot return to the water. They can only sit on the beach and starve or die of predation.
If you find a stranded seabird
If you encounter one or many seabirds stranded on a beach, please contact PAWS at 425.412.4040 immediately, or if you are outside of Washington State, find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you.
Do not take the bird to a veterinary clinic, shelter, or animal control facility. These agencies are usually not equipped or experienced in handling seabirds or other wild animals, and often do not have a license to do so. Rehabilitating seabirds properly requires a specialized facility and skilled wildlife rehabilitation personnel. Seabirds are sensitive creatures. There is a very short window of time in which rehabilitation and release to the wild can be successful.
Supplemental feeding attracts large flocks of waterfowl and promotes their dependence on handouts which do not provide proper nutrition for the birds. When left to feed on their own, waterfowl consume and help control aquatic plants such as millfoil and algae. These and other seabird populations are monitored closely by the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST).
PAWS also rehabilitates birds affected by large and small oil spills. If you find a bird you suspect has been affected by an oil spill or is covered in any type of oil, contact PAWS at 425.412.4040 immediately, or if you are outside of Washington State, find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you.
To report an oil spill in Washington State, call the Emergency Management Division at 1.800.258.5990.
Bowers N. Bowers R & Kaufman K. (2000). Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York, NY: Hillstar Editions L.C.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. April 7, 2016. Seabird Ecology
Whatbird. April 7, 2016. Glaucous-winged Gull