US Fish & Wildlife Service



Date of this Version



U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management ( January 2002).


What is a Colonial-Nesting Waterbird?

“Colonial-nesting waterbird” is a tongue-twister of a collective term used by bird biologists to refer to a large variety of different species that share two common characteristics: (1) they tend to gather in large assemblages, called colonies, during the nesting season, and (2) they obtain all or most of their food (fish and aquatic invertebrates) from the water. Colonial-nesting waterbirds can be further divided into two major groups depending on where they feed.

Seabirds (also called marine birds, oceanic birds, or pelagic birds) feed primarily in saltwater. Some seabirds are so marvelously adapted to marine environments that they spend virtually their entire lives at sea, returning to land only to nest; others (especially the gulls and terns) are confined to the narrow coastal interface between land and sea, deeding during the day and loafing and roosting on land. Included among the seabirds are such groups as the albatrosses, shearwaters, storm-petrels, tropicbirds, boobies, pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds, gulls, terns, murres, guillemots, murrelets, auklets and puffins. A few species of cormorants, gulls, and terns also occupy fresh water habitats.