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A small, black and white bird flies over ocean waters.
Information icon Black-capped petrel off the coast of Cape Hatteras, NC. Photo © Brian Patteson, seabirding.com, used with permission.

Black-capped petrel

Pterodroma hasitata

The black-capped petrel is a seabird found in North America and the Caribbean, and is known by several common names: “black-capped petrel,” “capped petrel,” and “West Indian petrel” in North America and on English-speaking islands. In the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the bird is known as “diablotín” (little devil). In Cuba, the bird also is referred to as “bruja” (witch).

Download the peer-reviewed species status assessment.

Appearance

The black-capped petrel has a grey-brown back and wings, white nape and rump, and the namesake black cap. The underparts are mainly white with some dark underwing markings. Though similar in size to a gull, the wings are much longer and narrower, and held more stiffly. On the open ocean, black-capped petrels wheel, bank, and glide on outstretched wings, making efficient use of altitude, gravity, air cushions and other air movement as available.

Habitat

Black-capped petrels spend most of their adult life at sea, coming ashore only to breed. The only known nesting sites lie in remote mountains in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispaniola. They nest in crevices or burrows, often on cliff slopes, where a single egg is laid. Adults make long forays out to sea to bring food back for developing young, usually returning to nesting sites after sunset or under cover of darkness. Much remains to be learned about these forays and the nesting ecology generally.

Diet and foraging behavior

The black-capped petrel is believed to feed primarily on squid and fish, picking food items from surface waters.

Foraging adults may range widely, moving as far north as Maine, the Gulf of Mexico, and northern South America, though it is likely that individuals rearing young are more confined in their movements. A principal foraging area appears to lie off the southeast U.S. coast, where birds may be found with relative regularity along the continental shelf or in the Gulf Stream off of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.

The main foraging areas appear to be directly east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina and along the continental shelf. However, some birds are found with regularity off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. Concentrations occur during winter, when breeding birds forage along the Gulf Stream as they migrate to and from breeding colonies.

Historic range

Black-capped petrel is known historically as having nested in remote mountainous regions of Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Hispaniola. Recent surveys in Dominica revealed evidence (radar observations, vocalizations) that breeding might persist there, but definitive evidence of breeding remains to be confirmed. Observations of black-capped petrels aggregating near potentially suitable montane nesting habitat in Cuba are similarly suggestive of potential breeding. Little is known about the historic at-sea range or that it differed substantively from what is presently known.

Current range and population status

The entire adult breeding population is believed to comprise 600 to 2,000 pairs, distributed among 13 breeding colonies on the island of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Domnican Republic). To date, most nesting (up to 90% of nest sites) occurs in the mountains of southern Haiti. It is not known how far breeding petrels may range from nest sites during forays to provide food for chicks, nor how long they may remain away. Black-capped petrels are known to occur at sea in the northwest Atlantic from Maine to Florida, in the eastern and central Gulf of Mexico, and in the Caribbean Sea as far south as northern South America. Foraging birds are regularly found along the North American continental shelf and the Gulf Stream where nutrient-rich deep ocean waters reach the surface, which attracts favored prey items.

Conservation challenges

The black-capped petrel faces many potential threats to its continued existence, including human encroachment, deforestation, agricultural modification, offshore energy exploration and development, subsistence harvesting, predation by introduced species, pollution, mercury bioaccumulation and inadequate regulatory mechanisms. Many of these issues are inextricably linked with extremely challenging social issues, such as in Haiti where effective natural resource conservation may only occur through solving critical human health and welfare concerns.

Predation by introduced species, such as Indian mongoose, Virginia opossum, feral cats, dogs, pigs, and rats have been noted as contributing to the decline and possible disappearance of black-capped petrels from multiple breeding locations in the West Indies. Mercury concentrations in the species have been documented as seven to nine times higher than in other similar seabirds, suggesting that bioaccumulation of pollutants may pose a concern.

Additional threats to the sustainability of black-capped petrel populations could include climate-related changes in habitat suitability, loss of nesting burrows to landslides, rain or flooding, and increased inland strandings during Atlantic storm events.

Partnerships, research and projects

BirdsCaribbean; Black-capped Petrel Working Group

A number of U.S. and Caribbean organizations are collaborating to address critical conservation, management, information, and communication needs associated with this species. The organizations include government agencies, universities, research institutions, NGOs and others. The recent proposal by the Service to list black-capped petrel as threatened under the Endangered Species Act has heightened interest and attention. The proposal identified areas where additional information is needed in better guide effective conservation responses. BirdsCaribbean and its Black-capped Petrel Working Group serve as primary forums for collaboration and interchange regarding priorities, ongoing efforts, and future needs, but the cumulative contributions of many partners remain the key to advancing our understanding and conservation of this species.

Marked petrel tracking sites

Ongoing research and monitoring efforts are attempting to better delineate petrel nesting sites, breeding habitat requirements, nesting ecology, and potential threats and their impacts. Transmitters have been deployed on a small number of petrels captured on land at breeding sites, as well as at sea, to begin to better understand range, movements, foraging ecology, exposure to threats, and the potential for as-yet undiscovered breeding locations. Public outreach and community engagement on Hispaniola is attempting to address local factors affecting human use and encroachment upon habitats where petrels are known to breed. A comprehensive seabird survey program underway in the Gulf of Mexico is revealing new information regarding petrel occurrence and distribution, and may help in understanding important foraging ranges and potential threats.

Subject matter experts

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

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