Oceanitidae – Southern storm-petrels

The fluttery flight makes them unique and different from related families of petrels

This family consists of some of the smallest seabirds that are skilled at navigating the tumultuous southern oceans. These birds are distinguished by their remarkable adaptations to a life that is almost exclusively spent at sea, far away from the sight of land.

Physically, storm petrels are diminutive birds, often only as large as a sparrow, but what they lack in size, they more than makeup for in their resilience and adaptability. Their wings are short but well-suited for the rapid fluttering flight style that allows them to ‘dance’ on the water’s surface, a behavior that aids in foraging for planktonic food items. The square tails of these birds contribute to their agility and maneuverability in the erratic winds above the waves.

One of the most distinctive features of storm petrels is their tube-shaped nostrils, which sit atop their elongated skulls. These tubes are not a mere ornamental trait; they are integral to the bird’s survival at sea. They house a specialized gland capable of excreting the excess salt that storm petrels ingest from drinking seawater and eating marine organisms. This salt-excreting adaptation is vital for maintaining the bird’s fluid balance and overall physiological homeostasis.

Despite being masters of the air, storm petrels have somewhat awkward terrestrial movements. Their legs are long for their body size, an adaptation that enables them to sit high and dry on the water’s surface, but this makes them less suited for walking on land. As a result, they are not graceful walkers and may often appear to stumble or drag themselves along the ground. Instead, their legs and webbed feet are more functionally adapted to paddling in the water while they feed.

When foraging, storm petrels exhibit a characteristic behavior known as pattering. They flutter their wings vigorously to maintain their position while tapping the water with their feet, creating vibrations that disturb small prey, making them easier to capture. This technique allows them to pick off food items from the water surface or just below.