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Fulmar: A Wide-Ranging Seabird

Updated on September 12, 2019
John Welford profile image

John is a retired librarian who writes articles based on material gleaned mainly from obscure books and journals.



The fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is most numerous in the north and west of the United Kingdom, but will breed wherever there are suitable cliffs. At other times it stays far out at sea in the North Atlantic.


At around 18 to 20 inches (45-50 cms) in length the fulmar is smaller than a herring gull, but is quite gull-like in general appearance apart from its thick neck and strong stubby bill with prominent tubular nostrils.

It has a light-coloured body that is greyish on top and white underneath. The wings are long and narrow.

Male and female fulmars are alike in appearance.


The fulmar is a true seabird that is found many miles from land, gliding over the sea on wings that are held stiffly outstretched. It will gather in flocks where there is a good source of food.

When nesting, fulmars are noted for the way they defend their territory, squirting any intruder that gets too close with a jet of stinking stomach contents. This is a behaviour that even young chicks are able to perform.


Fulmars feed on fish and crustaceans and are especially noted for following fishing trawlers to catch any waste thrown overboard. They will also take carrion in the form of dead birds or seals.


Fulmars are faithful to one mate for life, only seeking another if a partner dies. They are also creatures of habit when it comes to nest sites, returning to the same cliff ledge every year.

A single egg is laid on the bare rock and incubation takes about 50 days. This is done at first by the female but the duty is later shared by both birds.

Both parents feed the chick, with one always present to defend it while the other goes in search of food, which is then regurgitated from the parent bird’s stomach.

The young bird can fly after 46 days and is then completely independent. It will head out to sea and not return until it is ready to breed, some six years later.


The first known breeding by fulmars in the United Kingdom was in 1878, when the first pair was spotted in the Shetland Islands. A century later there were more than 300,000 breeding pairs in the United Kingdom, and the number has probably reached half a million since then.

However, the current trend appears to be a decline in numbers. This could in part be because of changes in fishing methods, resulting in less free food from trawlers, but global warming could also be responsible as sea temperatures increase and the natural food chain is disrupted.


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