Stercorariidae – Skuas or Jaegers

Brown Skua Stercorarius antarcticus ©James Lowen Website

The Stercorariidae known as skuas or jaegers are a group of seabirds in onee genus, Stercorarius.

They nest on the ground in temperate and Arctic regions, and are long-distance migrants. They have even been sighted at the South Pole.

Outside the breeding season, skuas take fish, offal, and carrion. Many are partial kleptoparasites, comprising up to 95% of the feeding methods of wintering birds, by chasing gulls, terns and other seabirds to steal their catches, regardless of the size of the species attacked (up to three times heavier than the attacking skua). The larger species, such as the Great Skua, also regularly kill and eat adult birds, such as puffins and gulls, and have been recorded as killing birds as large as a Grey Heron. On the breeding grounds, the three, more slender northern breeding species commonly eat lemmings. Those species that breed in the southern oceans largely feed on fish that can be caught near their colonies. The eggs and young of other birds are an important food source for most skua species during the nesting season.

n the southern oceans and Antarctica region, some skua species (especially the South Polar Skua) will readily scavenge the carcasses at breeding colonies of penguins and pinnipeds, sometimes taking live penguin chicks. In these areas, skuas seem to defer to the considerably larger giant petrels.

They are medium to large birds, typically with grey or brown plumage, often with white markings on the wings. The skuas range in size from the Long-tailed Skua Stercorarius longicauda, at 310 grams, to the Brown Skua Stercorarius antarcticus, at 1.63kg. On average, a skua is about 56cm long, and 121cm wingspan. They have longish bills with a hooked tip, and webbed feet with sharp claws. They look like large dark gulls, but have a fleshy cere above the upper mandible.

The skuas are strong, acrobatic fliers. They are generally aggressive in disposition. Potential predators who go near their nest will be quickly dived at by the parent bird, which usually targets the head of the intruder; a practice known as ‘dive bombing’

Skuas are related to gulls, waders, auks, and skimmers. In the three smaller species, all nesting exclusively in the Holarctic, breeding adults have the two central tail feathers obviously elongated, and at least some adults have white on the underparts and pale yellow on the neck. These characteristics are not shared by the larger species, all native to the Southern Hemisphere except for the Great Skua. Therefore, the skuas are often split into two genera, with only the smaller species retained in Stercorarius, and the large species placed in Catharacta. However, based on genetics, behaviour, and feather lice, the overall relationship among the species is best expressed by placing all in a single genus. The Pomarine Skua’s and Great Skuas’ mitochondrial DNA (inherited from the mother) is in fact more closely related to each other than it is to either Arctic Skua or Long-tailed Skua, or to the Southern Hemisphere species. Thus, hybridization must have played a considerable role in the evolution of the diversity of Northern Hemisphere skuas.

There are generally accepted to be just 7 species of Jaegers or Skuas, which are:

Chilean Skua Stercorarius chilensis
South Polar Skua Stercorarius maccormicki
Brown Skua Stercorarius antarcticus
Great Skua Stercorarius skua
Pomarine Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius pomarinus
Arctic (Parasitic) Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius parasiticus
Long-tailed Skua (Jaeger) Stercorarius longicaudus

Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 7

Useful Reading
  • Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association

    SOSSA was founded by members of the New South Wales Albatross Study Group (NSWASG) in 1994. It was set up to be an umbrella organisation for many study groups concerned with studies of Southern Ocean bio-diversity. SOSSA is a wildlife research and conservation group which consists of dedicated people both professional and amateur. These people share a common interest and concern for the environment and the wildlife of the Southern Oceans
  • The Seabird Group

    The Seabird Group, a registered charity, was founded in 1966 to promote and help coordinate the study and conservation of seabirds
Other Links
  • Seabird Osteology

    The Seabirds Skull Gallery, existing since 2002, has only been changed a bit and was given a new name that covers the subject more properly. After two years working on this site it is not only skulls anymore that are shown. Regular visitors have already noticed that since December 2004 the scope has widened. It now includes also other parts of the seabird skeleton. In the Seabird Osteology section general aspects of seabird osteology are treated and in the species section you willl find a listing of families and groups with links to pages on skeletons of particular species or groups. There is always work in progress, which means that there will be additions and improvements from time to timeā€¦

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