What Happens When Seabirds Drink Saltwater?

From albatrosses to penguins, marine birds have built-in desalination systems.

This story comes to you through a partnership between Audubon and BirdNote, a show that airs daily on public radio stations nationwide.  


How is it that seabirds have no problem drinking seawater? The salt they take in is absorbed and moves through their blood stream into a pair of salt glands above their eyes. The densely salty fluid that results is excreted from the nostrils and runs down grooves in the bill. Watch a gull at the coast, and you will see drops of this liquid appear on the tip of its bill. As the drop gets larger, the bird shakes its head to send the salt back to the ocean.

A seabird’s skull has a pair of grooves for the salt glands right over the eyes. These grooves are especially large in penguins, loons, albatrosses, gulls, and puffins, but other marine birds have them, too.

But don’t confuse drinking with bathing. Some coastal birds prefer to bathe in fresh water and will stop at a river mouth or fly inland to a lake to take their daily bath. They seem to relish the fresh water, but they’re quite able to drink from the sea!

The writers for BirdNote include Bob Sundstrom, Dennis Paulson, Todd Peterson, Frances Wood, Chris Peterson, and Ellen Blackstone. Adam Sedgley procures the bird sounds. I’m Mary McCann.


Call of the Western Gull provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by C.A. Sutherland. Producer: John Kessler. Executive Producer: Chris Peterson

©2013 Tune In to Nature.org  April 2013  Narrator: Mary McCann