Wondernose: What bird helps fishermen find their fish?

by Rebecca Martin | Feb 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Northern Gannet flying with beak full of seaweed
Northern Gannet carrying seaweed. Photo © Rinus Baak/Dreamstime.com.

Our mystery bird is big, white, and goose-like. It’s a strong flyer and will fly in flocks high above coastal waters. With its keen eyes, it can detect shoals of herring and mackerel far below. Thus, when a fisherman sees a flock of these birds, he can expect the waters below to be well-stocked with fish, especially if the birds are diving.

That’s quite a sight when dozens of them are diving for fish. It’s like the skies are raining birds! They plunge down from as high as a 100 feet (30 m). Needless to say, they hit the water with quite an impact. You and I would get a massive headache from doing such a thing. But our mystery bird was created with a system of air sacs that cushion the brain. Also, they have very strong skulls that can easily withstand the impact.

Where are these birds found? They nest on a certain few islands on the coasts of North America and Europe. Being migratory, these birds fly many miles to the south for the winter. But their summers are spent in places near here. In Canada, the most famous nesting ground for these birds is on Bird Rock and Bonaventure (background picture), two islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Year after year they come back to these same islands.

They use up every bit of space! At certain times the island will appear to be carpeted with white birds. Each pair will mound up some seaweed to build a nest. Actually, the mounds have been found to contain all kinds of trash, including Coke cans and gold watches. About two feet of space is left between nests. The birds are fiercely territorial. Fighting any newcomers, a pair will guard its own small patch of ground.

Those tall mounded nests have more than one purpose. They are also a good taking-off point. Remember, , these birds are goose-size, and they sometimes have a problem getting airborne if they’re just on flat land. Their seaweed nests give them a better start. Once in the air, as I’ve mentioned before, they’re excellent flyers.

You’d like more clues to the bird’s name? Well, being goose-like, their name is a derivative of “gander.” That still doesn’t put a light on for you? Then I’ll tell you outright—these birds are called gannets. They’re a lot like boobies, if you’ve ever heard of those birds. One difference is that boobies nest near tropical waters and gannets in temperate areas.

A mother gannet will lay usually one large egg in that sloppy seaweed nest of hers. At first the egg is bluish; eventually it turns a chalky white. That egg is then carefully incubated for forty-four days. Do you know how a gannet keeps the egg warm? Some birds have a special brood patch for that purpose, but not the gannet. It uses its big webbed feet. It wraps a web around each side of the egg. Both parents take their turns. Each turn will last from one to two days.

At the end of the approximately forty-four days, out pops the chick—without a single feather, or even down on its bare skin. The first coat of down grows quickly, though. Guess what the parents do to keep the new baby warm. They hold the chick on top of their feet. Soon, of course, the chick can sit alone in the nest.

Feeding time is fun to watch. The parents regurgitate partly digested fish—preferably mackerel. The chick reaches into its parent’s beak; in fact, sometimes it climbs right inside the beak! Gannets have a small flexible pouch called a gular pouch. It is similar to a pelican’s pouch, though not nearly as large as the pelican’s.

Though it is well-cared-for when quite young, at two months of age the newly fledged chick will find itself on its own. Once those flight feathers appear, the parents’ job is done.

So now the chick faces a problem—how to get into the air. First it will take a big leap out of the nest. It may become airborne, but, if not, the chick must struggle its way through the teeming colony to the cliff’s edge. From there it can fly for a short time over the water, but it soon needs to come down and rest on the waves. You see, a chick becomes quite fat under its parents’ care. Now it will spend time losing weight before it again attempts to fly.

Who are the gannets’ main enemies? Mostly gulls. Herring gulls steal eggs. Some gulls even try to steal the food the gannets are carrying to their chicks.

Northern Gannet colony
Colony of Northern Gannets. Photo © Erazem Dolan/Dreamstime.com.

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