Photo: Andrew Green/Flickr Creative Commons

Northern Gannet

Morus bassanus

One of the largest seabirds of the North Atlantic, the gannet is spectacular as it plunges into the sea in pursuit of fish. With a spear-like bill and spiky tail, it looks "pointed at both ends." Nesting colonies are on northern sea cliffs; one at Bonaventure Island, Quebec, has become a famous tourist destination. In winter off southern coastlines, the gleaming white adults may be outnumbered by brown and patchy immatures; it takes four years for gannets to attain full adult plumage.
Conservation status Population declined drastically during 19th century owing to taking of eggs and slaughter of adults; this occurred over much of range, but especially off eastern Canada. With protection, populations began to recover early in 20th century, with increase apparently continuing to present day.
Family Boobies and Gannets
Habitat Oceanic; often well offshore. Breeds colonially on sea cliffs. Forages at sea, from fairly close inshore to out of sight of land, but mostly over waters of continental shelf. In cold-water areas in summer, but winters to edge of tropics. Nests on cliffs and ledges of islands, sometimes on steep protected cliffs of mainland.
One of the largest seabirds of the North Atlantic, the gannet is spectacular as it plunges into the sea in pursuit of fish. With a spear-like bill and spiky tail, it looks "pointed at both ends." Nesting colonies are on northern sea cliffs; one at Bonaventure Island, Quebec, has become a famous tourist destination. In winter off southern coastlines, the gleaming white adults may be outnumbered by brown and patchy immatures; it takes four years for gannets to attain full adult plumage.
Photo Gallery
Feeding Behavior

Forages by plunging headfirst into water, sometimes from more than 100' above surface. Also forages while swimming, submerging head to peer below surface and then diving and swimming underwater. May take food at surface, or may steal food from other birds.


Eggs

One. Pale blue to white, becoming nest-stained. Incubation is by both sexes, 42-46 days. Young: Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Age at first flight 84-97 days. Only one young raised per year.


Young

Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. Age at first flight 84-97 days. Only one young raised per year.

Diet

Mainly fish. Feeds mostly on small fish (1-12" in length) of types that live in dense schools, including herring, sand lance, cod, pollack, menhaden. Also may eat some squid. Sometimes scavenges for scraps and offal around fishing boats.


Nesting

Usually first breeds at age of 5-6 years, and may mate for life. Breeds in tightly packed colonies, with much competition for prime nest sites. Male claims nest territory and displays to attract mate, with exaggerated sideways shaking of head. Mated pairs greet each other by standing face to face, wings out, knocking bills together and bowing. Nest: Site is on ledge or flat ground, often within 2-3 feet of other nesting gannets. Nest (built mostly by male) is pile of grass, seaweed, dirt, feathers, compacted and held together by droppings, used by same pair for years and gradually building up to tall mound.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Migrates offshore southward along Atlantic Coast, some going around southern end of Florida and along Gulf Coast to Texas. Immatures tend to winter farther south than adults. Many (especially adults) are present in winter far offshore as far north as New England. Immatures and nonbreeders may remain south of breeding grounds in summer.

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Migration

Migrates offshore southward along Atlantic Coast, some going around southern end of Florida and along Gulf Coast to Texas. Immatures tend to winter farther south than adults. Many (especially adults) are present in winter far offshore as far north as New England. Immatures and nonbreeders may remain south of breeding grounds in summer.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Guttural croak or grunt, heard only on breeding islands.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Northern Gannet

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate threats facing the Northern Gannet

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.

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