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The Northern Gannet { Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 1, 2015

Pair of gannets

Image taken in Quebec
Image taken in Quebec | Source


The northern gannet belongs to the order of birds known as the Pelecariformes and the family Sulidae. this family comprises the Gannets and the Boobies.There are ten species in the family which are for all intents and purposes divided into the genus Sula the true Boobies and the genus Morus the Gannets. Formerly they were all grouped together in the genus Sula

The northern gannet's scientific name is Morus { indicating silly} bassanus after the Bass Rock in Scotland. Bass Rock {now a bird sanctuary} is situated in the Firth of Forth,two miles east of North Bewick,and one mile from the mainland. It is a huge trachyte plug rising 313 feet with three sides of sheer cliffs.

In the UK the bird is on the Amber list of conservation concern due to important and localized breeding populations. For the same reason it is also Amber listed in Ireland. In Britain there is an estimated 220,000 nests in summer. They are Pelagic birds which breed on open islands and coastal cliffs.

In Europe they are regarded as being secure with an estimated population of between 300,000 and 310,000 breeding pairs. They breed in relatively few sites in north west Europe which holds 75% of its global breeding population. The population numbers vary from country to country here are some examples France ,has an estimated 16,000 breeding pairs,Germany around 70 breeding pairs, Norway 4,200 breeding pairs and Russia 60-60 breeding pairs. Iceland's population is around 33,000 breeding pairs. They also breed on the east coast of Canada. { Source BTO and Birdlife}

The Gaelic name for the bird is Sulaire, the Welsh Hugan and the Irish Gainead.

Here we review this fascinating species, as always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Gannets and habitat


Description of the northern Gannet

Butler {1896} describes the gannet as a large heavy, goose-like marine bird,with a long conical bill and long pointed wings. When full adult its plumage in both sexes,is pure white tinged with a yellowish buff on the head and neck with the outer edge of the wings and its primary quills and their coverts black.

The bare skin of the throat,and round the ye is dark blue,and the iris yellowish blue. The bill which is dagger shaped is horned coloured with dark blue lines. The legs and feet are black.The legs are set far back on the body,therefore when they walk it is in a duck-like manner. Although on land the gannet moves awkwardly in the air it is a bird of graceful flight,with the head is protruded and the tail narrow and pointed.

Gannets are fascinating birds.They do not have external nostrils and their secondary nostrils can be closed when they are in the water. The sternum is very strong and sufficiently long enough to provide protection for the internal organs from impact with the water. The lungs are highly developed and probably also play a part in reducing the effects of hitting the water at high speeds.

Individuals have a subcutaneous fat layer ,dense down and tightly overlapping feathers that help them to withstand the cold temperatures. A reduced blood flow to the webbing of the feet,outside the breeding season, also helps to maintain body temperature when they swim.

The birds are 94 cm { 32 inches} long and weigh three kilograms.

Gannets hit the water at high speeds | Source

Gannets holding their bills straight up which is referred to as 'Sky pointing'

Image taken at Bempton cliffs in the East riding of Yorkshire {north east England}
Image taken at Bempton cliffs in the East riding of Yorkshire {north east England} | Source

Illustration of the Gannet

Birds of Europe { Gould} 1837
Birds of Europe { Gould} 1837

General information and historical observations.

The Gannet ,sometimes referred to as the 'Solan goose', is one of the most splendid birds in the European avi-fauna. With the return of spring those birds that have been dispersed far and wide along the calmer shores of the southern seas become victim to the call deeply embedded in their being to rejoin the resident birds in their bleaker northern homes. It is then that relatively silent winter rocks and cliffs of such locations become a hectic,noisy babel as the ledges throng with their new tenants and their parental urges. { See nest,eggs and young below}

Few sights can be more impressive than a flock of these great birds, in single file, sailing high above the waves,with their outstretched wings moving by regularly alternate flapping's and glides,eagerly seeking out a shoal of Herring or Pilchard,rising to the surface.

Seebohm,describes them feeding in the following manner-" First one then another, drop with a loud splash into the sea, as if hurried downwards with great force,disappears for a few moments, and then rising to the surface. They may be continually seen falling from the air like large,white stones, or rising from the waves to join the soaring flock above"

The Gannets habit of diving from a height for fishes seen on the surface, was taken advantage of in days gone by,to capture these birds.Gannets caught in herring loch's " With a board set on purpose to float above the water;upon it an Herring was fixed,which, the birds perceiving,flies up to a competent ,until he finds himself making a straight line above the fish, and then bending his course perpendicularly, piercing the air,as an arrow from a bow, hits the board, into which he runs his bill with all his force irrecoverably, where he is unfortunately taken"

The gannet feeds exclusively on fish which it takes from a little way beneath the surface, never diving to any great depth.It is exceedingly voracious,and often so gorges itself that it unable to rise from the sea { That is why a person who eats a lot at once is often referred to as a gannet}.The air cells beneath the skin in the gannet,as in the Pelican,are widely distributed.

The biology of this bird was studied in the 18th century by Professor Owen,who conveys the following information through historical records-" numerous strips of muscular tissue fibre's which pass from various parts of the surface of the body,and firmly attached to the skin,appear to produce instantaneous expulsion of the air-at the will of the bird- from these internal cells, and by this increasing its specific gravity,enable it to descend with the rapidity necessary to capture of a living prey, while swimming near the surface of the water"

According to Macgillivary,Gannets,in alighting on the ground generally sweep up form below in a long curve keeping their feet spread,and come down rather heavily,often finding it difficult to balance themselves, and sometimes when the place is very steep, or when another bird attacks them, flying off to try again for the second time.

The gannet used to be considered a delicacy for the table, being served to the Judges of Assize in 1628, by the Sheriff of Northumberland { north east England}. In 1660, it was also a choice dish in Scotland, a plucked gannet costing one shilling and eight pence of the currency of that date. few of those, who have tried the bird,even the youngest and tenderest looking bird speak of the dish as either 'delicate' or 'choice'.

They were also taken in great numbers for their feathers and down which were valuable at that time . They were sold for relatively high prices.

Coward { birds of Cheshire}1900, who knew the species name as Sula bassana,remarks that in certain seasons the gannet visits Liverpool Bay in some numbers," But it is not often seen close inshore where the sandbanks and shallow waters of the estuaries are unsuited to the habits of the surface swimming fish upon which it principally feeds. Storm driven birds which are nearly all immature have been encountered at inland localities. Records show that one exhibited in the Warrington Museum was picked up alive at Lymm {north west England} by Mr.E Gibson on January 15th 1865,and there is another that was found in an exhausted condition in a farm yard at Ringway in October 1894 which died two days after being found"

Courtesy of Smithsonian Channel

Gannets in captivity

Strangely enough these sea birds were once kept in captivity. Here are some historical notes I happened upon during the course of my research. " I have seen statements" says Mr. Booth,who kept numbers of these birds in captivity " to the effect that the gannet is unsuited to confinement, and ill repays the consideration with which it is treated. The poor creatures are by nature endowed with a voracious appetite,and if starved necessarily become ravenous and possibly spiteful.

" When looked after by those acquainted with their requirements and willing to supply them with a sufficient quantity of food,mackerel, herring and sprats are their favourite fare, none of the feathered tribe could be found ,who's habits are more interesting, and but few so harmless and gentle"

Breeding pair.

Taken in Germany
Taken in Germany | Source

Nest,eggs and young

The business of making fresh nests and repairing old ones begins as soon as every suitable ledge on the rock or cliffs have been occupied. Seebohm {1800,s} describes the scene of a nesting colony.--" The scene is a most imposing one.Thousands of gannets are sailing to and fro before the mighty cliffs;every part of the rocks that can support a nest is crowded with birds; birds are constantly coming to and leaving the cliffs; the harsh notes of quarreling gannets sound in all directions;whilst numbers are to be seen sitting quietly on the green sward on the top of the rock, or fast asleep,with their bills and heads almost hidden among their dorsal plumage"

Gannets use their head and beak to display messages to each other in the colony. When they lift their heads upwards accompanied by a curious strangled call singles they are about to take off. Another posture is called throat gaping when they open and close their beaks to warn of a predator. This display has a rippling effect through the colony as the message is passed on from one bird to another.

The nest is constructed of seaweed, turf and grasses,mostly the commoner seaweeds. They may be very slight structures in a depression on the ground or conical piles,sometimes a considerable height,with a shallow cavity in the middle, in which is deposited the single egg, which has a chalky surface of a dull white or bluish background colour.

However,this ground colour is soon diminished beneath the filth in which in a few days it is smeared. Indeed soon after the arrival of the birds the whole location becomes almost unapproachable, because of the fetid smell of the birds' droppings and the decomposing remains of disgorged fish.

The single egg is incubated by both parents. The parent that is about to occupy the nest spreads the webs of one foot carefully over the egg then lays the other foot closely over its fellow as soon as possible. It sits down upon the egg which one would think would be broken after this maneuver, by this large bird. However, they are experts at this maneuver and the egg remains in tact. After about 42-46 days {usually in June} the young gannet is hatched.

The gannet colony is a hectic place

Taken in Germany.
Taken in Germany. | Source

Dead gannet on the beach at Cornwall England

Unfortunately many young gannets do reach maturity
Unfortunately many young gannets do reach maturity | Source

Newly hatched chick weigh around 60 grams. The Rev.H.A.Macphearson wrote;- " in the cold and stormy summer of 1897,many of the young gannets hatched upon Bass Rock had donned their fluffy white plumage by the 27th of June, though the majority were still black and featherless on that date" The weather as with all species plays an important role in their development. However, should conditions be favourable within 11-12 weeks the baby gannets will weigh an astonishing 4-500 grams.

They are not attractive babies when they hatch as Butler remarks " they come forth as a nude,slate blue,pot bellied,soft squabs with sealed eyelids". By the time they are six weeks old, however, this ungainly and unattractive,gelatinous mass,becomes clothed with long fluffy down of the purest white, the face and throat alone remaining bare and black. It then becomes as charming an object,as it was previously ugly.

During the incubation period the male works tirelessly procuring and fetching food for his mate, not in the bill, but in his stomach,from which he disgorges by her side. The powerful wings of the gannet makes light of the distance they may have to travel to their feeding grounds. Tagged birds from the Bass Rock {Scotland} have been tracked to Norwegian waters to feed and return with food.

The young ones are chiefly fed by the female with,at first, just soft macerated food from her stomach,the young one pushing its head into her throat to procure it. As the nestling grows it is given larger and larger morsels. When the young bird loses all the down from its body, except on the head and neck, it presents a very comical look of wearing a full bottomed legal wig,and at this stage in its development was once referred to on Bass Rock as the 'Parliamentary Goose'

This white down is soon replaced by feathers,and by the time the bird is two or three months old it is fully fledged and able to leave the nest. Above, the first plumage is deep brown almost black each feather being tipped with a triangular white spot,while below it is a buff colour,the feathers being tipped with brown.

It is not until the fifth year that the gannet acquires the full mature plumage. It moults for the first time during the second autumn,and then in every succeeding autumn,loosing year after year,more and more of the brown mottling, until it is quite white,with the exception of the black primary feathers and wing coverts,and, the buff yellow neck. The latter is always more distinct during the courting season,after which it tends to fade once more.

On leaving the nest and taking to the water the young gannet is unable to fly in the true sense of the word,and is consequently compelled to live,for some weeks entirely on the surface of the water,swimming about and foraging for themselves. At this point in time they are completely neglected by its parents. They are vulnerable from leaving the nest until capable of strong flight.It is estimated that three quarters of the colonies young die before they reach independence.

Gannet on the wing

originally posted on Flickr uploaded by Albert Herring
originally posted on Flickr uploaded by Albert Herring | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      aviannovice ,

      Hello Deb, how right you are ,if any olympian could dive like this they would be gold medalists everytime. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      An excellent recollection of the life of the Northern Gannet. Nobody can dive better, not even an Olympian.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      You are very welcome. Thank you for your visit and for your appreciated comments. Best wishes to you.

    • Ann1Az2 profile image


      6 years ago from Orange, Texas

      What a beautiful bird and so graceful. Thank you so much for sharing information on one of God's creatures!

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hello Devika They are fascinating birds. Thank you for your visit and for your usual kind comments,along with the vote up useful and interesting all are much appreciated my friend. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      The Gannet is such a unique bird with great features. A fascinating character with a large wing span and looks very strong in in flight. You have created another interesting and educational hub. Voted up, and interesting also useful.


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