Seabird Group Seabird Group

Historic evidence of the use of storm-petrels Hydrobates sp. as candles

Alexander L. Bond1* ORCID logo , Jógvan Hammer2 and Sjúrður Hammer3 ORCID logo

1 Bird Group, The Natural History Museum, Akeman Street, Tring, Hertfordshire, HP23 6AP United Kingdom.

2 FO-100 Tórshavn, Faroe Islands.

3 Fróðskaparsetur Føroya/University of the Faroe Islands, Faculty of Science and Technology, J. C. Svabos gøta 14, FO-100 Tórshavn, Faroe Islands.

Full paper


Many recent accounts of storm-petrel biology and conservation, particularly in the North Atlantic Ocean, refer to chicks of Leach’s Storm-petrels Hydrobates leucorhous and European Storm-petrels H. pelagicus being used as candles, particularly in Ireland, Scotland, and the Faroe Islands. Here, we examine the historical, ethnographical, and museum evidence for this practice. Most accounts are second-hand, and only a handful of examples exist and can be verified either as photographs, first- person accounts, or museum specimens. We conclude that the practice was not likely to be widespread, and its perception was perpetuated by reproductions and exaggerations by visiting naturalists in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.


On islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, there is a long history of seabird hunting noted as early as the ninth century (Tierney 1967), a practice which continues today in some areas (Olsen & Nørrevang 2005; Petersen 2005; Chardine et al. 2008; Merkel & Barry 2008; Shrubb 2013). Seabirds and their eggs would be harvested primarily for food, but also for feathers, oil, decorative objects and clothing (Baldwin 2005; Shrubb 2013). Many recent species accounts refer to the historical practice of using storm-petrel chicks as candles, particularly Leach’s Storm-petrels at Scottish colonies and the Faroe Islands (e.g., Huntington et al. 1996; Pollet et al. 2020), but it is seldom attributed and poorly documented leading some to doubt its veracity.

Leach’s Storm-petrel Hydrobates leucorhous and European Storm-petrels H. pelagicus breed in earthen burrows and rock crevices on islands and headlands throughout the temperate and boreal North Atlantic Ocean, from Maine to Labrador in North America, and from the Mediterranean to northern Norway in Europe. Chicks are nest-bound for around six weeks, making them readily available and a predictable resource. The chicks are also fed lipid-rich meals and can exceed adult body mass by as much as a factor of two, mostly through fat reserves (Brooke 2004; Pollet et al. 2020; Carboneras et al. 2021). Just how widespread was the practice of using storm-petrel chicks as a light source, and what historical evidence exists? Here, we review the historic literature in northwestern Europe and summarise specimens of ‘petrel candles’ in ethnographic collections. We also discuss the extent of this practice with a particular focus on the Faroe Islands.


We are indebted to many museum staff: D. Hicks, M. Dickerson and J. Cole (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford), D. Kidd (National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh), C. Milensky (Smithsonian Institution, Washington), J. Rudoe (British Museum, London), J.B. Kristensen (Natural History Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen), and O. Douglas (Museum of English Rural Life, Reading). We thank S. O’Boyle, J.-K. Jensen, and R. Thomas for thoughtful discussions on the matter. Comments from three anonymous reviewers improved this manuscript, and any remaining errors are our own.


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