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Northern Fulmar Life History



Northern Fulmars live most of their lives in the open ocean. They nest in colonies on cliffs scattered around the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. In the United States, the species breeds only in Alaska, on the Pribilof Islands and the islands of Semidi, Chagulak, Hall, and Saint Matthew. In western Canada, Triangle Island, British Columbia, has a small colony. In eastern Canada, colonies are mostly in the Arctic, with smaller colonies also in Newfoundland and Labrador. During the nonbreeding season, fulmars disperse widely from the edge of pack ice south to about 35° north latitude, and in smaller numbers south of this latitude as well. In the vast expanses of ocean, they forage wherever prey is most concentrated, typically at the edge of sea ice, in current convergences and upwellings, and over the continental slope and seamounts. They're rarely seen from land, except at premier seawatching sites such as Andrews Point (Cape Ann) and Race Point (Cape Cod), Massachusetts.

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Northern Fulmars eat fish, squid, and small crustaceans, which they capture with the sharp-edged, hooked bill at the sea surface or just below it, in a shallow dive or sometimes in underwater pursuit. They gather in large numbers around fishing and whaling vessels, eating scraps of whatever garbage, offal, or bycatch might come their way. They follow feeding whales, whose foraging activities often send prey items to the surface, and they also feed on carcasses of dead marine mammals they find at sea. They feed at sea during both day and night. Among their known fish prey are Arctic cod, Atlantic cod, Alaska pollock, Atlantic pollock, Atlantic herring, capelin, and multiple species of lanternfish, rockfish, and sandlance. Also known in their diet are 15 species of squid, several species of octopus and cuttlefish, small crustaceans (amphipods, copepods, mysids, decapods, euphausiids, isopods, and cumaceans), sea slugs (pteropods), bristleworms (polychaetes), ctenophores, and many types of jellyfish.

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Nest Placement


Typically nests on rocky or grassy cliffs. In the British Isles, the species has nested on sand dunes, stone walls, rooftops, and even treetops.

Nest Description

Nests are little more than a depression in rock, sand, or soil, lined occasionally with a few pebbles or bits of vegetation. Nests measure about 7.5 inches across and 1.4 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1 egg
Egg Description:


Condition at Hatching:

Downy and helpless, eyes open.

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Northern Fulmars are monogamous and mate for life—and they can live about 60 years. They are famously faithful to their nest sites as well: one study found that more than 99% of birds returned to the previous season’s nest site with the same mate. They nest in colonies ranging from a few pairs to many thousands, and their nests may be just a few feet apart. When a pair returns to its nest cliff in spring, male and female display to one another by stretching out their necks and wagging their heads back and forth rhythmically, giving a cackling call. They also preen one another. They gather at the nest site and mate often, and males fend off any rival males at this time. The pair then departs the nest site for several weeks, during which time the female eats well, to obtain enough calcium to produce her single egg. The male usually begins incubation as soon as the female lays her egg, so she can return to sea to feed and regain strength. The parents take turns traveling to sea and provisioning the chick, which leaves the nest cliff soon after fledging. Fulmar parents generally forage in the vicinity of their colonies but sometimes travel more than 600 miles round trip to procure food for the nestling. After the nesting season, fulmars, disperse toward traditionally productive foraging grounds and spend the rest of the year on the open ocean. Because their prey resources shift during the nonbreeding season, the birds must move around quite a bit to stay nourished.

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Common Bird in Steep Decline

Northern Fulmar populations worldwide have increased over the past 50 years or more. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 14 million and rates the species a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In 2002, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan estimated a North American population of 2.1 million breeders. Although population levels are currently high, fulmars ingest large amounts of plastic particles. While fulmars appear able to tolerate the plastic itself, the chemical nature of plastic attracts and captures many types of pollutants that the birds ingest along with the plastic. Fulmar eggs and organs contain high levels of heavy metals and pesticides that likely harm their health and reproductive success. Another threat is fishing bycatch: tens of thousands of fulmars are killed each year by being caught on fishing gear such as longline hooks and gillnets. They are also vulnerable to oil spills. As for many other species of the arctic, climate change is likely to cause changes in the Northern Fulmar's food supply and habitat.

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Fisher, J. (1952). The Fulmar. New Naturalist Series. London: Collins.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

Mallory, Mark L., Scott A. Hatch and David N. Nettleship. (2012). Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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