The Sketch

The Southern Giant Petrel: Ogre of the High Seas

The Procellariiformes have always seemed to me one of the more distinguished orders of birds. The root of the word — procellarum — means “violent wind” or “storm,” and members of the order, which includes albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, and the like, are famous for their flight: The largest of them, the Wandering and Royal albatrosses, have the longest wingspan of any bird, at up to 11 feet. With their wings locked in position, albatrosses can glide for hours without flapping, dipping and climbing with and against the winds. It’s called dynamic soaring, and it’s the stuff of poetry.  

No one’s writing poems about the Southern Giant Petrel.

The Southern Giant Petrel and its cousin, the Northern Giant Petrel, are the exiles of their order—the lumbering brutes of the Procellariiformes. (They don’t even share the same taxonomic family as the albatrosses—they’re stuck down with the shearwaters, in the Procellariidae.) They have a great deal working against them, starting with their appearance: Southern Giant Petrels are smaller but stockier than most albatrosses, aerodynamically unlikely, with thick necks, brown feathers, and a hunchback, at least in flight; an unfortunate salt gland lies atop their bill like the barrel of a pistol, or some sad malignancy (it is in fact a way to excrete excess salt).

Then there’s the behavior: Ranging over the sub-Antarctic and sub-tropical oceans, Southern Giant Petrels are known as the vultures of the sea, and are frequently seen (or photographed) emerging from the viscera of an elephant seal or sea lion carcass, their speckled or pasty heads awash in blood and clotted with gore. It’s all pretty grotesque, and the birds’ blank-looking eyes, which have icy white or pale blue irises, only heighten the savage effect. When scavenging options are slim they’ll use the hook on their beak to capture and eviscerate squid, fish, young penguins—and even their golden-child counterparts, albatrosses—and there are accounts of Southern Giant Petrels bashing seabirds against the surf or holding them underwater to drown them. To top it off, Southern Giant Petrels are known to projectile-vomit their putrid stomach oils at anyone they don’t want around, which led aggrieved sailors to stick them with a less-than-flattering nickname: stinkpots.

Not many scientists have chosen to study Southern Giant Petrels, which seems surprising to me—they may not be muses, but I’d argue Macronectes giganteus’ beastliness gives it its own macabre charisma. And I wonder if, in addition to the usual logistical challenges of studying seabirds, part of this scientific aversion to the stinkpots should be blamed on Robert Cushman Murphy.

You can think of Murphy as the patron saint of seabird studies. Born 1887, he was the first American ornithologist not only to study seabirds, but also to popularize them. During a long career at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, he sailed far from his home on Long Island to the southern oceans, cruising from South Georgia Island to both South American coasts to New Zealand, collecting specimens, making detailed observations of behavior, and then writing books with a literary grace that would never pass scientific muster these days.

But for all his enthusiasm for seabirds, Murphy had little good to say about the giant petrel. “Its appearance and habits are alike unprepossessing,” he wrote in his great treatise, Oceanic Birds of South America. “A bird of prey, it is, nevertheless, ungainly and uncouth, lacking the beauty and dash which win admiration for even the most bloodthirsty of falcons and eagles.” He mocked the petrel’s “supposed courtship,” when males “hideously smeared with blood and grease” danced like stupid peacocks before indifferent females. And, perhaps most galling for a Procellariiform, he questioned their flying prowess (referring to the bird by an old name, the giant fulmar):

At sea, the Giant Fulmar is a ‘stiff flyer,’ showing to best advantage only in high winds. It is a far less agile and graceful bird than mollymauks [a type of albatross] of the same size, and it assumes particularly queer and awkward attitudes when descending to the ocean under the handicap of a light breeze.

What chance does the Southern Giant Petrel have at redemption if even seabirds’ greatest champion could find so little to love?

Murphy would in sum pronounce the giant petrel “scarcely more popular as a bird than a shark is as a fish.” It’s an unfortunate comparison for the petrels, but it’s a telling one, too, because both Murphy’s scorn and sailors’ mocking nickname for the bird may have masked another feeling—fear. During the 19th century, the “stinkpots” were in fact the scourge of sailors: They attacked seamen who fell overboard, and were known to use the hook at the end of their bills to target their faces and eyes. There were accounts of sailors having their arms cut to ribbons as they tried to defend themselves, and one tale told of a boatswain who, in 1840, fell off the HMS Erebus during an Antarctic survey, and was immediately set upon by a large, frenzied flock of giant petrels who assaulted him so viciously that he sank before the ship could double back and pick him up. Sometimes contempt is the price an animal pays for reminding humans that we can be prey just like anything else.

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