Bermuda Petrel - The Cahow


About the Petrels

Bermuda's National bird is the Bermuda Petrel, or commonly known as the Cahow. This is a pelagic bird which means that it spends most part of its adult life flying over the open ocean and feeding on small marine creatures like fish, shrimps and squids. These are rare and nocturnal sea birds and make eerie cries at night. Hearing such strange sounds, the early Spanish sailors thought Bermuda was a Devil's place and never tried to settle in the island and called the island 'Isle of Devils'. However they left hoards of hogs to breed in the island that would serve as food for the passing mariners. 
Those hogs and later the first British settlers who came to Bermuda in early 1600s, killed the Cahows recklessly. During the day time the birds would come back to their base, remain quite tame and become easy preys. And soon the Cahows became virtually extinct in Bermuda. 
Bermuda Cahows 
Bermuda Cahows 
Source: Wikimedia Commons 
In 1935 a Cahow flew in and hit the St. David's Lighthouse, fell down and died. The feathers indicated it was a young bird. And later in 1951 after some 320 years of near extinction and when all had virtually given up hopes to see these birds again, strangely 18 of them were found in the Castle Harbor Island. David Wingate, a retired conservationist of Bermuda had immediately setup a program to conserve these birds, create a base for them in Nonsuch Island and build nesting burrows. By the time he retired in 2000, there were 50 pairs of Cahow in the island. 
The birds were saved from their extinction and now they are growing in number. However in 2003, hurricane Fabian had destroyed many of the burrows and had to be rebuilt. The present conservation officer of Bermuda is actively working on the Cahow conservation project and is supported by Australian petrel specialists. 
These birds are slow breeders. Once 5 years old, they come back to their base for mating. They usually mate for life and only once per year, and lay only one egg. The normal incubation period is 51 to 54 days. Annually they renew their bondage by cleanings each others feathers, mating, collecting glass and leaves for their nests, and build their nests in underground burrows. They also perform acrobatic courtship flights in the sky. Having spent 5 to 6 months on the sea, they usually return in November to their nests to meet their mates. 
The number of Cahows in Bermuda is now close to 100 pairs. Devices attached to their legs have transmitted information about their long flights. When they are not breeding, they are often found flying into the Atlantic and following the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. 

How to watch the Cahows

Cahows are nocturnal birds and hard to spot. But it is sometimes possible to see them in flight from the Cooper's Island Nature Reserve located at the St. David's Island. If you take a binocular and look out into the open ocean towards south, you can sometimes see them at twilight, particularly during Spring and November when the birds return home.  
Their upper part is black/dark Grey, and the bottom part (throat to belly) is usually white in color. Their average length is 15 inches and the wing span is about 35 inches. They mostly feed on squids and shrimps. They usually nest in small rocky islands in Castle Harbor
Bermuda Audubon Society along with Bermuda Zoological Society sometimes organizes boat trips in the month of November for the public (both tourists and locals) to watch the Cahows perform acrobatic courtship on the flight during late afternoon before they get back to their underground nests under the cover of darkness. The boat usually leaves from the south shore and goes to the Cooper's Point where you can watch these birds as well as other sea birds like Shearwaters. Duration of the boat trip is 3 to 4 hours and costs around $75 per person. Email [email protected] for details. 
Update March 22, 2012: Bermuda's Department of Conservation Services reported that the landmark figure of 100 pairs of nesting Cahows has been reached in the island. Over the past 50 years, the department has been working hard towards protection of the birds and keeping the predators away so that they reach the critical mass and become self independent. So reaching 100 pairs of cahows was a significant milestone in this regard. 

Related Articles

1. Check out Bermuda Birds to know about all the birds in Bermuda and the best bird watching locations in the island. 
2. Check out Bermuda Animals and Wildlife for full information on Bermuda's animal habitats. 

Visitors' Reviews and Comments

Hans Jansen (February 2015) 
Dear Mr. Bhattacharya, I am a dutch biologist with a preference for sea migration counts. Late this spring (end of May) I will have the oportunity to go to Bermuda. Seeing a Bermuda petrel is a long-cherished dream. I read on your website that the birds can also be seen during twilight in spring. I thought of watching the sea from Cooper's point at twilight, but also read this is only a good option in late autumn, when courtship takes place. 
Do you have any recollection of birds being seen in May, at the time the young fledge, at twilight from Cooper's point or elsewhere in East-Bermuda? If there is no realistic chance of seeing Bermuda petrel in spring during daylight hours, I will have to consider refraining from the undertaking to go to Bermuda. Kind regards, 
Raj Bhattacharya ( February 2015 
Good day Mr. Jansen, Chances of spotting a petrel from Cooper's Island in May is slim but possible. You may however try to visit Nonsuch Island located on Castle Harbor which is a conservation area of the Bermuda Petrels (Cahows). You can see a Petrel there. However Nonsuch Island is a restricted area and is accessible only by a boat. Sometimes Bermuda's Department of Conservation Services organizes tours or provides special permission to visit the island. You can contact Department of Conservation Services (Phone: 441-293 2727  or fax 441-293 6451) to find out if a tour is possible in May.