Fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur)

Also known as: blue petrel, blue prion, blue whale-bird, dove petrel, dove prion, dove whale-bird, fairy blue petrel, fairy blue prion, fairy blue whalebird, fairy blue whale-bird, fairy dove, fairy petrel, Gould petrel, Gould prion, Gould whale-bird, Kerguelen fairy petrel, Kerguelen fairy prion, Kerguelen fairy whale-bird, narrow-billed prion, narrow-tailed petrel, narrow-tailed whale-bird, prion, short-billed prion, short-tailed petrel, short-tailed whale-bird, whalebird
French: Prion colombe
GenusPachyptila (1)
SizeLength: 23 - 28 cm (2)
Wingspan: 56 - 60 cm (2)
Weight90 - 175 g (2)

The fairy prion is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

A small seabird with a gentle, dove-like appearance (3), the fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur) has pearl-grey upperparts with a conspicuous dark ‘W’ mark across the wings. There is also a thick black band and a white tip at the end of the triangular tail, a dark grey crown and a grey eye stripe. The underparts are white, and the legs and feet are bluish, with a pink tinge on the webbing between the toes (2) (3). 

Prion species are primarily distinguished by the shape of the bill, which is used to either filter plankton or pluck fish from the ocean’s surface (4). The fairy prion has a short, relatively narrow, pale grey bill, with a strong hook situated shortly in front of the nasal tubes (5). This species is similar in appearance to the fulmar prion (Pachyptila crassirostris), but its bill is shorter and stouter (2).

Occurring across oceans and coastal areas in the Southern Hemisphere (6), the fairy prion is found from the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, eastwards through the southern Atlantic and Indian Ocean, to south-east Australia and New Zealand (2).

Outside of the breeding season, the fairy prion is most often found feeding over deep waters, far from shore. During stormy weather it may come towards coastal habitats (2) (6). It breeds on oceanic islands, where it nests in crevices on cliffs and rock falls or in burrows in soil, although it may also nest in scrub, herblands, tussock or pasture (5).

A gregarious species, the fairy prion is often found in large groups in areas where food is abundant (2). Like other prions, it is often also found in the presence of cetaceans which drive prey towards the surface, hence these species’ alternative name of ‘whalebirds’ (4). The fairy prion mainly feeds on planktonic crustaceans, but occasionally also eats some fish and squid. It typically hunts by seizing its prey near the surface, but will also plunge into the water and catch its prey after a very short pursuit (2). 

Breeding normally starts in November (2), although it may occur around one month earlier in the southern parts of the fairy prion’s range (3). This species nests in large colonies in burrows that it excavates, or in crevices among rocks. All the birds lay over a two week period, which is a rather short time for a non-migratory bird (3). A single egg is laid and is incubated for 44 to 46 days. The chick is brooded for 3 to 5 days and fledges at 45 to 55 days. All the fairy prions leave the colonies after breeding, when they disperse widely over the southern oceans to feed at sea (2).

With a stable global population that is likely to number several million individuals, the fairy prion is a common species that is not currently threatened with extinction (6). There are no major threats to this species, although some breeding populations are at risk of predation by introduced mammals, such as cats and rats. Other populations are also threatened by soil erosion and man-made fires, which deteriorate suitable nesting habitat (2) (5). 

Global climate change may also pose a threat to the fairy prion, perhaps through changes in the abundance and distribution of its prey, or the removal of its nesting habitat through rising sea levels. However, the ways in which climate change may threaten this species are currently poorly understood (5). 

In the absence of any major threats to the fairy prion, it has not been the target of any specific conservation measures. However, feral animal control has eliminated predatory wekas (Gallirallus australis) and cats on Macquarie Island, whilst reducing rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) which degraded natural habitats. Maintaining such measures is of great importance in ensuring the preservation of breeding fairy prion populations on remote islands (5).

Find out more about the fairy prion and other birds:

Find out more about the conservation of albatrosses and petrels:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2011)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Brooke, M. (2004) Albatrosses and Petrels Across the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. Perrins, C. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Australian Government, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities - Fairy prion (March, 2011)
  6. BirdLife International (March, 2011)