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Northern Gannets

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A Northern Gannet

Gannets are a type of large sea bird. There are three species of gannet, the Northern Gannet, the Cape Gannet, which lives in South Africa, and the Australian Gannet. This entry is about the Northern Gannet.

There is some dispute over the exact scientific classification. Some class it as Sula bassana1 making it a close relative of the booby, but others label it Morus Bassanus in a separate group.

Where it Lives

The Northern Gannet lives in the North Atlantic Ocean and is the biggest seabird in that part of the world. About two thirds of all Northern Gannets nest in the United Kingdom, mainly in Scotland. The rest of the world's population is divided between Canada, Ireland and Iceland, with small numbers in France, the Channel Islands and Norway. Gannets stick together, in vast colonies on rocky cliffs and islands. The biggest such colony is in the Scottish islands of St Kilda; this colony alone comprises 20% of the entire world's population.

The birds travel south to warmer climes for the winter. Canadian gannets winter around the Gulf of Mexico while European birds travel to the Mediterranean and the coast of Morocco.

Description of the bird

The gannet is an elegant bird. It is almost entirely white, with yellow patches on the sides of its head, black markings around pale blue eyes and a long bluish-grey beak. It has black tips on the ends of its pointed wings.

Size: about 1 metre. Wingspan: 2 metres. Weight: 3 kg.


The male builds the nest on a rocky ledge, out of seaweed, twigs and feathers cemented together with mud and guano. He then goes about attracting a mate. Once they have chosen each other, the couple will stay together for life and will re-use the same nest. The female lays a single pale blue egg, but both male and female take turns incubating the egg, keeping it warm under their large webbed feet. After about seven weeks, the chick hatches and is cared for by both parents. When the chick loses its down and develops proper feathers, it is dark grey all over. This distinguishes chicks from the adults so that they don't get mistaken for rivals and attacked by other adults. Living in crowded colonies, this is very important. As the young grow up, they become more and more like the adults and by the fourth year they are fully grown with adult plumage.


The gannet is superb at flying. It can glide for huge distances without flapping its wings at all. It has even mastered the art of gliding into the wind, by staying very low over the surface of the ocean and using the eddies created by the waves.


The gannet is at its most impressive when it is feeding. It hovers over the ocean at a great height (about 30 metres), then dives while partly folding its wings, hitting the surface like a spear at speeds of up to 100 km per hour. This enables it to catch fish that are deeper than most seabirds can reach. Gannets have a few anatomical features which help them dive. They have no nostrils on their beak, breathing through their mouth. They have binocular vision, allowing them to judge distances more accurately. They have pockets of air under the skin on their shoulders and neck, which act like 'bubble-wrap', protecting them from the impact with the water.

The Guga Cull of Sula Sgeir

The gaelic name for gannet chicks is guga, and the guga hunters are licensed to kill several thousand gannet chicks each year, with the blessing of both the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, under a special dispensation.

There is a centuries-old tradition of the men of Lewis going out in August to cull the chicks. The guga are considered a great delicacy by the people of Lewis, and especially the good folk of the port of Ness (the Gaelic name for these people is the Niseachs) and not least by expatriates living all over the world. It is the Niseachs who have the specific dispensation from the 1954 Protection of Birds Act under which gannets are a protected species.

Every year the hunters go and stay on a rocky outcrop called Sula Sgeir, 60 miles offshore. The name means 'Solan Rock', solan or solan goose being an alternative name for the gannet. King Charles II said that the solan goose was one of the things he liked least about Scotland.

Sula Sgeir is a pretty wild and stormy place with high, rough seas and strong winds, and the men have to climb the rocks and catch the plump young chicks using a long pole with a snare loop on the end. The guga are then throttled, gutted and cleaned. Their oily offal is used to fuel an open peat fire over which they are singed, then they are salted, and packed into barrels.

At night the men huddle inside ancient shelters on the rock... and sing traditional Niseach folk-songs.

The men return to Ness to a heroes' welcome, and are met at the quayside by relatives, friends and neighbours all anxious for these stubbly green little delicacies.

This annual tradition goes back at least four centuries.

The traditional way to cook guga is to boil it in fresh water for an hour, then discard the water with any excess oil and salt, and boil for another half hour or until tender. The smell of the cooking is said to be revolting, but the Niseachs do regard the guga as a great delicacy.

The Future of the Northern Gannet

Despite this, numbers of gannets are rising dramatically in Europe at the moment. The Norwegian colonies are less than 50 years old but already have more than 2000 breeding pairs. Around the British Isles, the number of gannet colonies has grown from only eight in 1900 to more than 20 now. The future looks bright for this amazing bird.

Human Gannets

In the UK, the word 'gannet' is often used as a derogatory term to describe the type of person who eats all their own food plus the remains of everybody else's as well. Such people can be seen at parties hovering over the buffet and steadily consuming everything in front of them. This usage originated with sailors. Flocks of gannets would follow the ship and eat the food remains that were discarded into the sea. If a sailor was the sort that would eat everything, he would be referred to as a gannet.

1The name bassanus/bassana comes from the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, Scotland, where there is a large gannet colony.

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