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Fulmarus glacialis - Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar image

Geographic range:

Found throughout coastal areas of the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in winter

Key features:

Distinctive tube on the beak. It differs from shearwaters by its large, round head, thick, short, yellow bill, a stockier shape and more rounded wingtips. It can be distinguished from gulls by its longer wings. Its tail is short and rounded.

Similar species:

Puffinus griseus -- Sooty Shearwater


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), pelagic zone

Primary common name:

Northern Fulmar

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

Fulmarus glacialis is widespread and abundant in the northern hemisphere. In North America, they range from Alaska to Baja California, Mexico on the Pacific coast and from the Canadian Arctic to North Carolina on the Atlantic coast. They breed in scattered locations off Alaska, specifically in the Bering Sea, and in the high Arctic of Canada.


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), pelagic zone

Habitat notes:

Fulmarus glacialis is highly pelagic and common in offshore waters, especially in the early winter from October to December. They are rarely seen from shore, except in years when there are abundant birds. During these years, they may inhabit nearshore waters or harbors, waiting for scraps of fish. During the breeding season, Fulmarus glacialis nests on cliff faces or in shallow burrows on islands.


Relative abundance:

Fulmarus glacialis is most common offshore during the winter, though abundance changes from year to year. They are generally more common, and arrive earlier, in Northern than Southern waters. Populations have been increasing in the past few years and this is likely due to the commercial fishing industry since so many birds feed on offal, the fish waste discarded off the back of fishing boats.

Species Description

General description:

Fulmarus glacialis is a gull sized pelagic seabird that flies like a shearwater, but is actually a petrel belonging to the family Procellariidae. They belong to the order Procellariiformes, also referred to as the tubenoses since all birds in this order have their nostrils enclosed in one or two tubes on their straight, deeply grooved bills with hooked tips. There are two species in the genus Fulmarus, Fulmarus glacialis lives in the North Atlantic and Pacific and Fulmarus glacialoides lives in the southern oceans. It is among the longest-lived bird with an average adult life span of about 32 years

Distinctive features:

Fulmarus glacialis is a medium sized seabird that like all tubenoses, has large nostil tubes. It differs from shearwaters, by its large, round head, thick, short, yellow bill, a stockier shape and more rounded wingtips. It can be distinguished from gulls, by its longer wings. Its tail is short and rounded. There is a small dark patch in front of its eye, the eyes are dark brown and the legs and feet are pinkish. Its plumage is highly variable, from immaculate white to uniform dark gray and can be anything in between even mottled. Despite these morphs, the color is rather uniform without any strong contrasts. Light morphs predominate over much of the North Atlantic and in the Bering Sea. Darker birds are more numerous in the Arctic and off the south coast of Alaska. Off of California, medium-gray birds dominate. In most birds, white-shafted primaries show as a white flash on the upper surface of the open wing and are unlike any wing patches on shearwaters, but do resemble those of some true petrels.


Fulmarus glacialis can grow to a length of up to 50 cm with a wingspan of up to 112 cm and can weigh as much as 1000 g. Males are slightly larger than females.

Natural History

General natural history:

Fulmarus glacialis is not gregarious and is more often seen flying or sitting alone. However, when they are scavenging, especially around boats, they may be scattered together. When they do associate with other birds, it is usually with gulls. Their walking ability is limited, but they are strong fliers. They fly like shearwaters, with rapid wingbeats just above the waves and occasionally gliding. But when the wind comes up, they fly more like true petrels than shearwaters wheeling and arcing at high speed. These birds can also dive to depths of up to 3 meters propelling themselves using their feet and wings. Fulmarus glacialis is one of the longest lived birds, with a mean life span of 32 years and some birds reported living longer than 50 years. Their call is a hoarse cackling.


Fulmarus glacialis feeds on a variety of organisms, including fish, small squid, zooplankton, sea jellies and offal from fishing and whaling vessels.

Feeding behavior

Carnivore, Scavenger

Feeding behavior notes:

Fulmarus glacialis skims the waves in search of food grabbing prey at or just below the water’s surface. They are also very competitive scavengers and may even swim quite close to a boat to forage for fish scraps.

December - February


During the winter, Fulmarus glacialis remains at sea moving as far north as there is open water, while some birds move as far south as southern California.

June - August


Fulmarus glacialis is a colonial breeder that nests on open sea cliffs during the summer months. The nest is located on the ledge of a cliff or in a hollow on a bank or slope sometimes consisting only of a shallow scrape occasionally lined with small stones. They do not breed until they are 8-10 years old. At which time the female lays one egg and both parents incubate the chick for about 7 weeks. Nesting birds are active around their nesting colonies during the day. Upon hatching, both parents feed the chick by regurgitation. The chick does not take flight until it is about 7 weeks old. During the breeding season, birds and chicks can eject foul stomach oil up to 2 meters to repel unwanted visitors.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Dunn, J.L. 1999. Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 464 p.
Stallcup, R. 1990. Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific. Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Stinson Beach, CA. 214 p.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

Seattle Audubon Society.