British Wildlife of the Week
At first glance, the fulmar looks superficially similar to a herring gull, with its grey wings and white underparts. But a closer inspection will reveal that it is a smaller bird, with a shorter, stubbier bill, and a dark smudge around the eyes. You also won’t catch the fulmar flying around coastal towns trying to steal chips because this is a very oceanic bird, spending most of its time far away from land. Though it may seem lightweight and fragile, the fulmar is perfectly adapted to life soaring above stormy seas using its stiff, outstretched wings.
The fulmar isn’t even closely related to the gulls – it’s actually from the same group of birds as the shearwaters, petrels and albatrosses. All of these birds have long, tubular nasal passages on top of their bills. These allow fulmars and other ‘tubenoses’, as they are known, to secrete salt from the seawater they drink or ingest with their food, and then expel it.
The fulmar is famous for its projectile vomiting habit; it can spew a bright orange jet of warm, disgusting goo up to two metres. This liquid is actually high-energy stomach oil, typically used by adults to fuel long-haul flights, or to feed their young when they return to the nest. However, it can also be used, by both adults and chicks, as an effective and revolting deterrent against any potential threat – not to mention the occasional innocent human. Many a researcher has been covered in this foul-smelling fishy concoction – and if it gets onto your clothes, it’s almost impossible to remove. Because of this vomiting behaviour, the word fulmar means ‘foul gull’ in Old Norse.
Though certainly unpleasant for any human on the receiving end of this greasy, sticky liquid, it can be downright life-threatening for a predatory bird such as a skua or peregrine falcon. The oil sticks to the birds’ feathers, stripping them of their waterproofing and their insulating properties. Without this, the bird of prey easily becomes waterlogged and may die from exposure, or it may become unable to fly and hunt.
This same oil apparently makes the meat of the fulmar taste disgusting – although not according to the former inhabitants of St Kilda. This remote, mountainous archipelago 160 km west of mainland Scotland is justly famous for its seabirds. It is said that the islanders thought fulmar flesh was delicious, but that may have been because they had grown up with it and knew little else.
In fact, the people of St Kilda relied extensively on the fulmars and other local seabirds to get by. They supplied the islanders with oil, eggs and meat, while their feathers were used as bedding to stuff mattresses. The birds were so crucial to the island’s economy that, until money was introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the islanders even paid their rent in bird oil and bird feathers.
Historically, St Kilda was the only place in the British Isles where fulmar bred. In fact, it was one of their main colonies in the entire world. But in 1878, a dozen fulmars founded a colony on Foula in the Shetland Islands, which increased to 20 the following year. Over the course of the 20th century, the fulmar expanded its range enormously, probably more than any other native breeding bird, and it colonised virtually the whole of the British and Irish coastline.
Today, there are possibly more than half a million pairs across the country, breeding wherever there are suitable steep cliffs. I last saw fulmars gliding and wheeling around the clifftops at Berry Head Nature Reserve near Brixham in South Devon, showing just how far they have come. And the expansion continues southward: they can now be seen along the northern and western coasts of France, too.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at a bird that is at its northernmost limit here in Britain, and one of our most distinctive-looking warblers – the Dartford warbler.