Petrels are tube-nosed seabirds in the bird order Procellariiformes.
The common name does not indicate a relationship beyond that point, as “petrels” occur in three of the four families within that group (except the Albatross family, Diomedeidae).
Having a fossil record that was assumed to extend back at least 60 million years, the Procellariiformes were long considered to be among the older bird groupings, other than the ratites, with presumably distant ties to penguins and loons. However, recent research and fossil finds such as Vegavis show that the Galliformes (Pheasants, Grouse, and relatives), and Anseriformes (ducks, geese) are still not fully resolved.
All the members of the order are exclusively pelagic (open sea) in distribution — returning to land only to breed.
The family Procellariidae is the main radiation of medium-sized true petrels, characterised by united nostrils with medium septum, and a long outer functional primary. It is dominant in the Southern Oceans, but not so in the Northern Hemisphere.
It includes a number of petrel groups, the relationships between which have finally been resolved to satisfaction (Austin, 1996; Bretagnolle et al., 1998; Nunn and Stanley, 1998 and Brooke, 2004):
- The fulmarine petrels: 7 species of surface predators and filter feeders, breed in high latitudes but migrate along cool currents to the north. All but Fulmarus were essentially confined to the south, Fulmarus apparently colonised the N hemisphere during the Early Miocene.
- The prions: A specialised group of a few very numerous species, all southern. They have a small, fulmar-like form and mostly filter-feed on zooplankton.
- Pachyptila, the prions proper
- The procellariine petrels, larger or mid-sized species feeding on fish and mollusks which are fairly close to the prions:
- Procellaria and
- shearwaters: numerous species in several genera with a medium number of species.
- Puffinus, which is in fact two rather distinct groups of larger and smaller species,
- Kerguelen Petrel Lugensa brevirostris.
- The gadfly petrels: These are a considerable number of agile short-billed petrels in the genus Pterodroma which include the endangered Bermuda Petrel or Cahow and a considerable number of forms rendered extinct by human activity.
The family Hydrobatidae is the storm-petrels, small pelagic petrels with a fluttering flight that often follow ships.
The word “petrel” comes from the Latin name for the Christian Saint Peter, and refers to the habits of certain species to hover just above the ocean waves, with their feet barely touching the water, thus giving an appearance of walking on water, as St. Peter is said to have done.