Big and Bad, or Just Misunderstood? Meet the Southern Giant-Petrel

We spend a lot of time looking at penguins down here, but they’re not the only birds around. An almost constant presence overhead is the aptly named southern giant-petrel—the biggest flying bird in Antarctica. Southern giant-petrels have six-foot wingspans and tremendous bills that look like a cross between a bottle opener and a piece of body armor.

Over the years they have developed a fearsome reputation as fierce, stinky, bloodstained, irritable scavengers. But one researcher—Donna Fraser, a member of the CONVERGE project’s birding team—has spent the last 20 years re-evaluating this myth, inventing a new, gentler way of approaching the birds, and discovering valuable information about them into the bargain. Click through the slideshow for a closer look at the lives and habits of this misunderstood seabird:

An Integral Part of the SceneryThe “Albatross” That Nobody LovedCareful, Cautious, and CompassionateA Sensitive SideWe Call Them WooshiesYour Chick Is Making Great Progress, Ms. Giant-PetrelThe Better to Scratch Your Little Head WithLike an Oceanic VultureMaster of the Wind
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  1. nia January 28, 2015 at 4:29 pm #

    I think the birds are simply misunderstood. The southern giant-petrel is an endangered species. It is probably hard for them to trust a separate species.

  2. Kevin January 28, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    Other than penguins, how many other forms of antarctic birds have you’ve observed?

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:36 am #

      Hi Kevin, Right here around Palmer Station, we’ve seen the following species: Adelie penguin, gentoo penguin, chinstrap penguin, Antarctic shag, kelp gull, brown skua, south polar skua, Antarctic tern, snowy sheathbill, southern giant-petrel, Wilson’s storm-petrel, and snow petrel. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  3. Allison January 28, 2015 at 7:19 pm #

    I think this is a interesting bird. It doesn’t look like a frightening bird. I think the words that they use to describe the bird aren’t really true.

  4. Jared January 28, 2015 at 9:17 pm #

    How do you guys survive Antartica’s gruesome weather.

    • Hugh Powell February 2, 2015 at 11:25 am #

      Hi Jared, The weather here is not as gruesome right now as I think you’ve been having back in the U.S. It’s been about 35 degrees and raining for the last few days. But it is very remote and unpredictable here. We survive by paying attention to the weather, dressing in layers, eating plenty of food and drinking lots of water, and carrying survival gear with us when we go out. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  5. Mariano Campos January 29, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Are these birds carnivor? And if so, do they eat the penguins? If they are not carnivors, what do they feed on

    • Hugh Powell January 31, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

      Hi Mariano – Yes, giant-petrels are carnivores. They do eat penguins, as well as squid and seal carcasses. They act as predators (meaning they catch live animals to eat) but much of the time they are scavengers (meaning they eat things that are already dead, like vultures do). Thanks for asking – Hugh

  6. Naomi Weintraub January 29, 2015 at 8:41 pm #

    Do both parents get food for the “wooshies”, like the Penguins do?

    • Hugh Powell January 31, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

      Hi Naomi – Yes, both male and female giant-petrels gather food for their chicks. Thanks for asking – Hugh

  7. Andrew January 29, 2015 at 11:44 pm #

    Hi I am one of Mrs. Hester-Fearon’s student. Since Donna Fraser has had around 20 years of experience, enough information on how not to approach these petrels, has there been any situations where she had to learn the petrels’ behavior the “hard way”?

    • Hugh Powell January 31, 2015 at 6:15 pm #

      Hi Andrew – I asked Donna Fraser about this, because I couldn’t believe that she could develop such a successful research project with giant-petrels without having a few hard lessons. She said that the big birds have bitten her or scratched her skin with their bills plenty of times, but she’s never had anything really bad happen. She approaches the birds with caution and spent lots of time getting to understand them and know what to expect from them, before trying to get too close. And she tries to be very slow and gentle with them, never forcing them to do something they don’t want to do. Thanks for your question – Hugh

  8. Susan January 31, 2015 at 10:35 am #

    These are amazing photos. Thanks so much for sharing!

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Test Your Memory With “What in the World?” on January 31, 2015 at 12:31 am

    […] at 64 Degrees South Urban Planning: How Gliders Work: A Look Inside the Blue Hen Brush Strokes: Big and Bad, or Just Misunderstood? Meet the Southern Giant-Petrel Drawn by a Ruler? Here Comes the Neighborhood Black and White and Slightly Pink: Sights and Smells […]

  2. […] I mentioned giant petrels in one of the previous blog entries, but they are worth another look. These enormous birds live for more than 40 years and can traverse enormous distances while foraging. They nest high up on several of the islands near Palmer Station, including Hermit Island, which Zach and I climbed. Read about Donna Fraser’s remarkable work with these amazing birds here. […]