NORTHERN GANNET (Morus bassanus) – (See images below)
DESCRIPTION: The Northern Gannet is mostly white with usually black wing tips. Bill is sharp and greyish blue, feet are black. There can be some yellow on the head and face depending on the season. Sexes are similar. Juveniles are dark brown. This is a large seabird, at around one meter long (3.3 feet), with a wing span of around 1.75 meter (69 inches).
NAME: The English name is from Anglo-Saxon ‘ganot’, which means ‘little goose’. The Latin genus name ‘Morus’ stands for ‘foolish’ (think ‘moron’) due to the lack of fear of those birds in their nesting colonies. The French name ‘Fou de Bassan’ also reflects this trait (‘Fou’ means ‘crazy’). The Latin species name ‘bassanus’ stems from ‘Bass Rocks‘, the bird’s largest breeding location in the Firth of Forth in the north east of Scotland (see photo below).
HABITAT: During breeding season, coastal cliffs and rocky islands
DIET: Fish and squid (see Notes below for how the bird gets its prey).
NESTING: Colonies (called ‘gannetries’) on top of and along the side of cliffs on islands, which are sometimes inaccessible. There is aggressive behavior between females and between males in the colonies. The nest is a mound of plant material, soil and seaweed. After a few years, a nest can reach 2 meters height (6.5 feet). One light blue-green egg is laid, incubated by both parents, who also both feed the chick.
DISTRIBUTION: Breeding colonies along the coasts of Scandinavia, Iceland and the UK, also along east coast of Newfoundland and in Gulf of St. Lawrence (Cape Bonaventure, Magdalen Islands). Winters offshore along the coasts of east North America and the Gulf of Mexico, also offshore along the coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean.
ON PEI: Except in the winter, northern gannets are common around Prince Edward Island, but don’t breed on that island.
CONSERVATION: Around 25% of the North American population migrates to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter. Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, there has been a decrease in the reproduction success of the Bonaventure colony. The northern gannet has been the most affected bird by this environmental disaster. The birds from that colony also have to fly longer distances (hundreds of km) to reach their feeding areas, thus exhausting them. In spite of this, the northern gannet is still considered as a species of ‘least concern’.
Two photos below of a dead northern gannet might illustrate one of the concerns in the previous paragraph, but only a necropsy would determine if that bird died of emaciation. As per the photographer, there was no visible sign of injury.
NOTES: The adjective ‘Northern’ in the bird’s name implies that there is also a ‘Southern’ gannet. It is actually called the Australasian Gannet and is found around Australia and New Zealand. Conservation efforts on an island of the latter country attracted a lone male, named ‘Nigel’, who paired with a decoy bird for years before finally dying.
The largest colony in North America (Île Bonaventure, Quebec) was estimated at 58,000 pairs in 2013. Their lack of fear in the colonies allowed countless bird watchers to closely observe the northern gannet. It also inspired many artists.
Torpedo Diving: The northern gannet dives at high speed (up to 100 km/hr or 62 mi./hr) for fish, sometimes from as high as 40 meters (130 ft), and they do so in large groups. They can also swim in the water down to 10 meters (40 ft). Many videos have been made of the spectacular ‘torpedo’ diving of the northern gannet.
SIMILAR SPECIES: Red-footed Booby
REFERENCES: (Hinterland Who’s Who) (Norwegian Polar Institute)

Northern Gannet caught a fish – North Lake, PEI – July 23, 2013 – © Joanne Dunphy
Northern gannets flying, Matt Beardsley
Northern Gannet caught a fish – North Lake, PEI – July 23, 2013 – © Joanne Dunphy
Northern gannet with fish, Joanne Dunphy
Northern Gannet – Aug. 2, 2017 – JoAnne Dunphy
Northern gannet, by Joanne Dunphy
Dead Northern gannet – Egmont Bay, PEI – May 25, 2017 – Marie Smith
Northern gannet, PEI, by Marie Smith
Northern Gannet largest colony, Bass Rock, Scotland – July 2014 – photo by Francis C. Franklin
Northern gannet colony, Francis C. Franklin
Head close up of dead Northern gannet – Egmont Bay, PEI – May 25, 2017 – Marie Smith
Northern gannet head, by Marie Smith