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Mother Cary’s Chickens (Wilson’s Petrel)

Oceanites oceanus
Wilson’s Petrel (Oceanites oceanus) is a small pelagic bird now classified as a member of the family Hydrobatidae (pelagic birds are birds that live in open oceans and normally only come ashore to breed).

One of the most common pelagic birds, Wilson’s petrel is found in seas around the world. Adult birds are usually about the size of a smaller pigeon and have tube-like bills, sooty brown plumage with a white stripe across the tail. They also have clawed, webbed feet that are equally well adapted to digging burrows on offshore islands and taking flight in rough seas.

The bird breeds between late March and August in the northern latitudes of North America and Europe. Feeding on a variety of small sea organisms and coastal insects, it produces oil rich in protein and fats that it feeds to a single chick. The chick is hatched from an egg, the large size of which in relation to that of the adult bird is rivalled only by the Kiwi.

In the eighteenth century, mariners called the petrel “Mother Carey’s Chicken,” or “Cary’s chick” and believed its appearance to be an omen of bad weather. The origins of the name are unclear, but it has been suggested that In seamen’s lore Mother Cary was the name given to a water spirit, whose “chickens” were the souls of drowned sailors.


Prepared by: Turnbull, P.
Created: 6 November 2001
Modified: 1 December 2001

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000125

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