Fea’s petrel (Pterodroma feae)

Also known as: Cape Verde petrel, gon-gon
French: Pétrel gongon
GenusPterodroma (1)
SizeLength: 32 - 37 cm (2)
Wingspan: 83 - 95 cm (2)
Weight295 - 355 g (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Fea’s petrel is a medium-sized gadfly petrel (3) (4), whose local name, ‘gon-gon’, is said to come from the wailing or cackling call given near the colonies at night (3) (5). The body of Fea’s petrel is grey above, with a dark “M” shape across the wings, and white below, with an indistinct, pale grey half-collar across the upper breast (3) (4). The head is dark, with a mottled whitish-brown forehead, and the beak is black and quite robust (3) (6). The underwings are mainly dark grey-brown, with a poorly-defined white bar along the length of the wing (3) (4), while the tail often has greyish-white outer feathers and darker central feathers (3). The legs are pinkish, and the outer two thirds of the feet black-brown (3).

Male and female Fea’s petrels are similar in appearance, and the juvenile resembles the adult (2) (6). Although virtually identical to the closely related Zino’s petrel (Pterodroma madeira), and until recently considered the same species, Fea’s petrel can be distinguished by its longer, thicker beak and longer, more pointed wings (3) (4) (7) (8).

Fea’s petrel occurs in the northeast Atlantic, breeding on four of the Cape Verde Islands (Fogo, Santo Antão, São Nicolau and Santiago), and on the island of Bugio in the Desertas Islands, off Madeira. It may also breed in the Azores (2) (4) (7). There is currently some debate over whether the populations of Fea’s petrel in the Cape Verde and Desertas Islands should be classed as distinct subspecies, or even as two separate species (3) (4).

Fea’s petrel is a pelagic seabird, found over the open ocean outside of the breeding season. Breeding occurs in rocky areas, on steep slopes and vertical cliffs, with the nest built in rock crevices or in burrows excavated in soil (2) (3) (4) (7). Fea’s petrel may also have nested in woodland in the past (2) (3).

Fea’s petrel returns to its breeding grounds in Bugio in June, and to the Cape Verdes in November, with young fledging mostly in December and May, respectively (2) (3) (4). Breeding occurs in loose colonies, the petrels entering the breeding sites after dark (3) (7). Nesting burrows are usually over a metre in length, with the nest chamber located 30 to 60 centimetres below the surface (7), into which a single egg is laid (2). Although some birds remain around the breeding islands throughout the year, other may disperse south outside of the breeding season (2) (4).

The diet of Fea’s petrel is little known, but is believed to consist of fish, squid and crustaceans (2) (7). Outside of the breeding season, the birds remain at sea, with young Fea’s petrels believed to spend around five years at sea before returning to the breeding areas for the first nesting attempt. Lifespan may be over 20 years in the wild (5).

The global population of Fea’s petrel is thought to number only around 3,000 individuals, most of which breed in the Cape Verde Islands. The species is listed as Vulnerable in Europe, in light of its small population on Bugio and its very small breeding range, which leave it particularly susceptible to human impacts or extreme events (4). Although there is currently no evidence of a global decline, the species faces a number of threats (4). Introduced species such as goats, rabbits and mice have caused severe habitat degradation and soil erosion at breeding sites (2) (4) (5) (7), and rabbits are also known to disturb the breeding burrows, sometimes resulting in the petrels abandoning the nesting areas (5) (7). Fea’s petrel formerly bred in mountain woodland on the Cape Verde Islands, but no woodland now remains, meaning the birds have been displaced to other areas (2). Fossil evidence suggests the species was also once more widespread in the Desertas Islands, although it is not known whether habitat loss caused the reduction in its range (7).

Introduced cats and rats may predate adult birds, chicks and eggs, and predation by the yellow-legged gull (Larus cachinnans) is also thought to be an increasing problem on Bugio (4) (5) (7). Fea’s petrel is also hunted by humans, for food and medicinal purposes (2) (4) (7), and although this has decreased since the designation of the Desertas Islands as a strict reserve, continued wardening of nest sites is considered important (7).

Fea’s petrel is listed on Annex I of the EC Birds Directive, which provides a framework for conservation and management of wild bird species in Europe (9), and is on Annex II of the Bern Convention (10). In 1990, the Desertas Islands were declared a Nature Reserve, giving legal protection to the islands’ seabirds (7), and a National Park has also been established at Chã das Caldeiras on Fogo, in the Cape Verdes, with the conservation of Fea’s petrel incorporated into the park’s agenda (4). A European Action Plan for Fea’s petrel was published in 1996, with the aim of protecting and maintaining the breeding population and promoting the expansion of its range in the Desertas Islands. Objectives included preventing human disturbance at breeding sites, undertaking monitoring and research, increasing public awareness, regenerating natural vegetation, and ensuring continued financial support for the species’ conservation (7). Eradication of rabbits and mice was also planned, and began in 2006 (4) (7). A plan for the control of goats on the islands is also being prepared (4).

Other proposed conservation measures include the provision of artificial nesting burrows (7), the continuation of population surveys and monitoring, and an assessment of the impacts of the yellow-legged gull, as well as discouraging hunting by humans (4). However, the ongoing review of the taxonomy of the Fea’s petrel means it will be important to reassess the conservation status of the populations on Bugio and the Cape Verdes Islands if they are found to constitute distinct species (4) (5).

To find out more about the conservation of Fea’s petrel see:

For more information on this and other bird species please see:

Authenticated (23/04/10) by Mark Tasker, Head of Marine Advice, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  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. BirdLife International (June, 2009)
  5. Programa Marinho (June, 2009)
  6. Madeira Birds (June 2009)
  7. Zino, F., Heredia, B. and Biscoito, M.J. (1996) Action Plan for Fea’s Petrel (Pterodroma feae). In: Heredia, B., Rose, L. and Painter, M. (Eds.) Globally Threatened Birds in Europe: Action Plans. Council of Europe Publishing, Strasbourg. Available at:
  8. Zino, F., Brown, R. and Biscoito, M. (2008) The separation of Pterodroma madeira (Zino’s petrel) from Pterodroma feae (Fea’s petrel) (Aves: Procellariidae). Ibis, 150: 326-334.
  9. EC Birds Directive (June, 2009)
  10. Council of Europe: Bern Convention (June, 2009)