Poster bird 2022: Northern Gannet

Poster bird 2022: Northern Gannet
©Tiago Guerreiro

Poster bird 2022: Northern Gannet

23 June 2022

This year, our poster bird is the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus), the largest seabird you can see in Portuguese waters.

Known for its spectacular dives, this seabird torpedoes into the water - a sight that Festival-goers can witness as these migratory birds prepare for their trip to the southern Atlantic. Surprisingly, despite their powerful flight they are somewhat clumsy at take-off and landing. 

Young Northern Gannets are brown, and until they reach maturity at the age of 5, they become gradually lighter, over 5 plumage phases. As adults, they are white with long, narrow wings sporting black tips. Their eyes are light blue and, during the breeding season, their head and neck turn yellow. Their long, pointy beak helps them project themselves forwards, making them easy to distinguish from other seabirds. 

Reaching 100cm in length and a wingspan of 180cm, adult Northern Gannets nest in the North Atlantic, in large colonies nestled in cliffs above the ocean or in rocky islets. The species' largest known colony was discovered in Bonaventure island, in Quebec, and numbered over 60 thousand birds. 

Together for many seasons, pairs have elaborate greeting rituals on the nests, stretching their bills and necks to the sky and gently beating their bills together. They lay only one white egg, which they incubate for 43-45 days. Chicks hatch covered in down, and require lots of parental care until they take their first flight around 14 weeks of age.

Northern Gannets feed on small fish such as sardines and herrings, which they catch in dives that can go as deep as 40 metres. Fishing vessels also provide them with good meals, which is why gannets often chase them, calling as they go. In spite of this, they are seen as allies by fishermen, as they show them where schools of fish are located.

Their main natural predators are gulls, crows, foxes and mink, which feed on gannet eggs. In terms of conservation, one of the main threats to Northern Gannets is bycatch (getting caught accidentally in fishing gear).