Have you ever seen a European storm petrel? The chances are you haven’t – unless you live on a remote island off the coast of Scotland or Ireland. Even then, you’d be very lucky to spot one. European storm petrels are very secretive birds. They spend a good deal of time out at sea, make their nests in underground holes and only come out at night.
Storm petrels get their names because the best time to see one is during a storm. In calm weather they tend to just ‘sit’ on the water but in storms they make use of the wind to carry them from place to place. This gave them a bad reputation amongst mariners who believed that the birds brought storms with them. Many sailors still regard storm petrels as omens of bad luck.
Unlike many seabirds, storm petrels are not very good divers. They get most of their food from on or near the surface of the sea. They can spend days away from the nest looking for food and often cover distances of over 100 miles – quite a way for a bird not much bigger than a sparrow.
They make their nests in hard to reach, hidden places like crevices in rocks or holes in the ground. They even set up home inside rabbit burrows and live quite peacefully with their landlords! They lay their eggs in these holes and take turns to incubate them while their partner is away at sea. Possibly due to the cold weather where they live, storm petrel eggs take quite a while to hatch – about 50 days. And during this time they are vulnerable.
Cats, foxes, rats, weasels and many other predators will happily dine on defenceless storm petrels or their eggs. That’s why the birds choose such out of the way homes where predatory mammals are rare. However, due to man’s meddling, even the remotest islands have become homes to rats brought by seafarers. These have wiped out the storm petrel on many British islands.
On one group of islands, the Shiants off Scotland’s northwest coast, seabirds have been in decline for a while due to the rat infestation there, and storm petrels have not been seen for a long time. But they appear to be back at last! In 2015 Scottish Natural Heritage, along with RSPB Scotland, began a programme aimed at eradicating rats from the islands. Now, 2 years later, the invaders are almost gone and storm petrels have been seen and heard there once more. At last, some good news to share with you here in Nature Matters!
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