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Northern Fulmar : The Foul Gull of St. Kilda

The northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) is one of the commonest seabirds in the North Atlantic, and a true master of the air. It is also, slightly less romantically, a master of vomiting noxious oil. And it is one of those rare species that appears to have benefited from humanity’s industrial exploitation of the natural environment. But most importantly for this episode, it is a central character in the story of an extraordinary human community – a key part in explaining how, for centuries, a village of perhaps two hundred people survived in one of Britain’s most isolated, bleak locations …

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Read on below for show notes with plenty more on the fulmar, but also some pointers to the full, amazing story of St, Kilda and its human inhabitants …

Here’s the UNESCO listing for St. Kilda as a World Heritage Site, explaining why it’s considered to be of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

Where is St. Kilda? It’s the tiny red smudge here, a long way off the west coast of Scotland:

And here’s the star of the show, the unshowy but if you ask me rather good-looking fulmar:

Fulmars doing what they do best (well, second best after flying): scavenging alongside a fishing boat:

Amazing film from the late 1920s, showing the St. Kilda community in its last years. The people, their homes and their seabird-hunting; all of it, rather sadly, performed a bit like a show for these nosy, patronising tourists. Just incredible to think of how hard such a life must sometimes have been, after the rich tourists had disappeared over the horizon back to their comfy beds …

There is much poignant detail, and many cool photos, on the human history of St. Kilda, and the lives its inhabitants lived on the Stories from St Kilda page at the National Records of Scotland. The Wikipedia page for St. Kilda also has a lot of info, and is a good starting place if you want to explore elsewhere for more detail.

And as for the fulmar …

Here is a PDF of a nice little study on oil in fulmars and related birds : Warham, 1977, The Incidence, Function and Ecological Significance of Petrel Stomach Oils, PROCEEDINGS OF THE NEW ZEALAND ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY, VOL. 24.

The very highly recommended TetZoo blog has, in one of its earlier incarnations, a great series of posts giving an overview of all the petrels: Part 1, Part 2 (which has particularly good stuff on the fulmar, including an awesome photo of oil vomiting!) and Part 3.

And something that didn’t make it into the podcast, but seems to be what everyone wants to talk about at the moment: plastic pollution in the marine environment. According to Trevail, A.M., Gabrielsen, G.W., Kühn, S. et al. Polar Biol (2015) 38: 975., Elevated levels of ingested plastic in a high Arctic seabird, the northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), 87.5% of fulmars sampled at Svalbard had plastic in their stomachs. Well that’s just awesome, isn’t it? Way to go, humanity.


Opening & Closing Themes: Running Waters and Acoustic Meditation by Audionautix (Jason Shaw), from audionautix.com. CC BY 3.0.

Bloom (Instrumental) and Fight the Sea (Instrumental) by Josh Woodward. CC BY 4.0.

The Return by nisei23. CC BY 3.0.

In A Moment and Reflections by Lee Rosevere. CC BY 3.0.

Field Recording of fulmars by neilg. CC BY 3.0.

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