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Types of Seabirds

What Are the Pelagic Birds?


When most birders think of seabirds, they imagine a lone bird soaring over endless waves. While that image is accurate for many seabirds, understanding the different types of seabirds can lead to a much better appreciation of these unique and varied birds.

 Click on any category for a more detailed definition and species examples.

1. Albatross

Jay Iwasaki

These tremendous pelagic birds are among the largest flying birds in the world, with mammoth wingspans and narrow wings. Unlike many marine birds, albatrosses also walk well on land.

2. Auk

Alan Vernon

There are many types of auks, but with their compact bodies all are well adapted to northern seas and colder waters. Murres, puffins and guillemots are all types of auks.

3. Booby


Named for their somewhat stupid expressions and history of gullible behavior where hungry sailors are concerned, boobies are beautiful tropical gannets with bright bills and feet.

4. Frigatebird

Steve Ryan

Also called the pirate bird or man-of-war bird, frigatebirds are stately fliers with long, hooked bills and boldly forked tails. The red gular sac of the males is distinctive, as is this bird's high, soaring flight.

5. Fulmar

Arne List

Often confused with gulls because of their chunky build and short tails, fulmars are actually a type of petrel. They are opportunistic feeders and will forage widely, including visiting land for trash or carrion.

6. Gannet


These chunky birds may appear ungainly, but they are strong fliers and powerful dive fishers. Their white plumage and black wingtips are distinctive for all three gannet species: northern, cape and Australasian.

7. Murre

Melissa Mayntz

A type of auk that resembles penguins, murres have dark and light countershaded plumage and will swim underwater in pursuit of fish. There are only two murre species, the common and the thick-billed.

8. Penguin


Flightless birds of the southern oceans, penguins are specialized seabirds well equipped for frigid waters with insulating plumage and fat. Despite their chilly reputation, however, several penguin species actually breed in tropical regions.

9. Petrel


These small seabirds are distinguished by their elongated, tubular nostrils and their low, wave-skimming flight that gives them the appearance of walking on water.

10. Puffin

Steve Garvie

These large auks with their colorful bills are often called sea clowns or sea parrots. They are powerful swimmers and nest in large breeding colonies, typically on offshore islands or isolated northern coasts.

11. Shearwater

Tim Lenz

These small petrels specialize in low, gliding flight where their wingtips may brush the waves and "shear the water" as they fly. There are more than 30 species of shearwater and these birds can be found worldwide.

12. Tropicbird


Unlike most seabirds, tropicbirds have primarily white plumage and are easily identified by their long streaming tail feathers. They have short legs and are shallow plunge divers when they hunt.

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