White-necked petrel (Pterodroma cervicalis)
|Also known as:||black-capped petrel, Sunday Island petrel, white-naped petrel|
|Size||Length: 43 cm (2) (3)|
Wingspan: 97 - 100 cm (3)
|Weight||380 - 545 g (3) (4)|
- The white-necked petrel is a large petrel species which roams across the Pacific Ocean, but nests only on a few small islands.
- As its name suggests, the white-necked petrel has a distinctive white collar around its neck, which contrasts with its black cap and grey upperparts.
- The white-necked petrel hunts squid and crustaceans out at sea.
- Unlike many other seabirds, the white-necked petrel rarely follows ships.
The white-necked petrel is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).
The white-necked petrel (Pterodroma cervicalis) is a large member of its genus (3) (5) which roams the Pacific Ocean. As its common name suggests, this seabird is readily identified by the white collar around its neck, which contrasts with a black cap on the top of the head (2) (3) (5) and, in some individuals, with a grey half-collar extending around the upper breast (2). The forehead, face and chin are white (3) (5).
The plumage of this distinctive seabird ranges from black at the tips of the wings to white on the underside of the body and grey on the upper surface of the body and wings. The underside of the white-necked petrel’s wing is white, with a narrow black trailing edge and a black line on the leading edge, near the bend in the wing. The upperparts of this species are marked with a dark ‘M’ shape extending from wing tip to wing tip (2) (3) (4) (5).
The white-necked petrel has a relatively long tail, which is grey with a narrow dark tip (3). The beak is large and black (3), while the legs and feet are pinkish, with darker toes and dark outer webbing (3) (5). Male white-necked petrels are slightly larger than females (3) (6).
The white-necked petrel has recently been identified as a separate species from the Vanuatu petrel, Pterodroma occulta (4), as they have a slightly different appearance, size and breeding grounds. The white-necked petrel is slightly larger and bulkier than the Vanuatu petrel, with a relatively shorter tail and lighter wing tips (4) (7). However, not all scientists support the split between these two species (2).
This rare seabird only breeds on a few islands in the South Pacific, but outside of the breeding season it has a much wider range extending across the Pacific Ocean, as far east as North America (2). The white-necked petrel nests on Macauley Island in the Kermadec Islands of New Zealand, and also on Phillip Island, near Norfolk Island, Australia (2) (3) (7) (8). During the breeding season, it can be found feeding around the Tasman Sea and the east coast of Australia, north to Fiji and Tonga (3).
The white-necked petrel also used to breed on Raoul Island, also one of the Kermadec Islands, but has not been seen there since the early 20th century, when the population was annihilated by feral cats and rats (2).
The white-necked petrel spends most of its time roaming the open ocean, but returns to land to breed. It has a slightly different habitat on each nesting island. On Macauley Island, this species nests in burrows, on gently sloping areas of sedge and grassland, whereas on Phillip Island it nests among boulders, or in rocky crevices sheltered by oak trees (2) (8), which conceal it from predatory birds (2).
The population of white-necked petrels on Raoul Island nested on the side of high-altitude ridges, but no higher than 300 metres above sea level (2).
The diet of the white-necked petrel consists mainly of squid and crustaceans, which this species catches in the open ocean (2) (8). Unlike a lot of seabirds, the white-necked petrel is rarely attracted to ships. This species has a graceless, effortless flight, usually gliding with only occasional slow wing beats (3) (5), and it usually hunts alone (3).
The white-necked petrel breeds in the summer, coming ashore in November, but usually laying its eggs in December and January (2) (3). Little else is known about the breeding habits of this seabird, although it has been reported to sometimes nest in artificial cavities (2).
The white-necked petrel has such a small range of nesting islands that it is very vulnerable to any change in its habitat or to human impacts on these islands (2) (8) (9). The population of white-necked petrels on Raoul Island was wiped out by introduced predators on the island, mainly feral cats and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus). In addition, feral goats trampled the nesting burrows on Raoul and Macauley Islands, while rabbits have caused erosion by their grazing and burrowing. The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) was previously found on Macauley Island, but is not thought to attack the white-necked petrel’s eggs or chicks, and was eradicated from the island in 2006 (2).
Other threats to the white-necked petrel come from disturbance by visitors, the risk of fires, and any further introductions of mammalian predators. This seabird is also potentially under threat from climate change, as its very limited breeding habitat is restricted to relatively low-lying islands that could be affected by sea level rise (2).
It is not yet known whether the white-necked petrel, like many other seabirds, is affected by accidental capture in longline fisheries (9). Fortunately, despite the various threats to this species, its population appears to be increasing (2).
Goats were removed from Macauley Island in 1970 and from Raoul Island in 1984. Rabbits were eradicated from Phillip Island in 1985, which may have allowed the white-necked petrel to colonise this island. Cats and rats have been removed from Raoul Island, and devices have been installed to try and attract the white-necked petrel to nest there once more by broadcasting its calls, but with no success so far. The Kermadec Islands are now nature reserves with access by permit only (2).
Other proposals for the conservation of the white-necked petrel include mapping the populations on Macauley Island, taking a census, and monitoring the island every five years to ensure no predators have invaded. The vegetation recovery on Macauley Island should be monitored to make sure that it does not have any negative effects on the white-necked petrel populations. Birds in the area should also be recaptured every five years to collect important data on their survival rates and lifespans (2). In addition, there are proposals to re-establish a colony of this species on Raoul Island (2), and population monitoring and strict quarantine of visiting vessels should be continued on Phillip Island (8) (9).
The white-necked petrel is a protected species in Australia under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which provides a framework for the protection and management of threatened species (10).
Find out more about the white-necked petrel and its conservation:
BirdLife International - White-necked petrel:
The Internet Bird Collection - White-necked petrel:
More information on seabird conservation:
BirdLife International: Global Seabird Programme:
RSPB: Saving Seabirds Globally:
Agreement on 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:
- Crustaceans: diverse group of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton, characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, woodlice and barnacles.
- Feral: previously domesticated animals that have returned to a wild state.
- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
BirdLife International - White-necked petrel (November, 2012)
- Onley, D. and Schofield, P. (2010) Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World. Christopher Helm Publishers, London.
- Imber, M.J. and Tennyson, A.J.D. (2001) A new petrel species (Procellariidae) from the south-west Pacific. Emu, 101: 123-127.
- Harper, P.C. and Kinsky, F.C. (1978) Southern Albatrosses and Petrels: An Identification Guide. Victoria University Press, Wellington, New Zealand.
- Fairbairn, J. and Shine, R. (1993) Patterns of sexual size dimorphism in seabirds of the Southern Hemisphere. Oikos, 68: 139-145.
- Shirihai, H. and Bretagnolle, V. (2010) First observations at sea of Vanuatu petrel Pterodroma (cervicalis) occulta. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club, 130(2): 132-140.
- Garnett, S.T., Szabo, J.K. and Dutson, G. (2011) The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
Garnett, S.T. and Crowley, G.M. (2000) The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2000. Environment Australia, Canberra. Available at:
Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2013) Pterodroma cervicalis. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at: