Posted by: Rob Viens | March 24, 2012

Mother Carey’s Chickens

March 24th – No entry today – though on the 26th Darwin has a multiday entry that covers the 24th through the 26th. I’m sort of surprised – I actually thought he’d have more time for writing at sea. I guess he makes time to write when there are interesting things to write about. Anyway, I thought I’d touch on a small part of that entry from the 26th that describes all three days:

“I find living on board a most excellent time for all sorts of study; & I cannot imagine why anybody who is not sick should make objections on that score. — There is little to interrupt one, for instance since leaving Bahia the only living things that we have seen were a few sharks & Mother Carys chickens.” (Mar 24/25/26)

It is interesting (and a good thing) that Darwin seems to like life on the ship – especially in light of the fact that his still gets seasick.  In the modern world, it strikes me as the equivalent of going someplace with no internet or cell phone service.  There is something liberating about that (he says as he writes his blog). Of course, it didn’t hurt that Darwin did not have to help sail the ship, too.

Not surprisingly, the thing that really caught my attention were the “Mother Carys (actually Carey’s) chickens”. Not being a sailor, I had to do a little looking to find out that this is a reference to storm petrels.  Storm petrels are a type of bird that spends most of its life at sea (a “pelagic” lifestle) – feeding off of fish and crustaceans that live in the surface waters.  They lay their eggs and raise their young in large colonies on rocky islands – one of the only times they are not at sea. Unfortunately, because introduced species that prey on their eggs have become more common on these islands, several species of storm petrel are threatened, endangered, or already extinct.

Storm Petrels near North Carolina (from gadflypetrel on YouTube):

Their names have a lot of stories to tell, so let me include a couple here.

First, the name storm petrel is believed to be detrived from the fact that these birds are (1) often seen before storms and (2) are named after St. Peter (petrel) because as they fly along the surface of the water gathering food they appear to be “walking on the water”.  (I guess this is just the avian version of the “Jesus Lizards” that run across the surface of water.)

Wilson’s Storm Petrel “walking on water”– a species that may be found off the coast of Brazil (from Wikipedia Commons):

Wilson's Storm Petrel

Second, Mother Carey’s is believed to be a derivation of Mater Cara – Mother Mary/Virgin Mary. Though the story gets more interesting than that…

In the 19th Century, Mother Carey was also a mythological being, similar to Davy Jones, that represented the cruelty of the sea – causing ship wrecks, and so forth. Since they were believed to come before storms, some superstition sailors went so far as to say that petrels were a harbinger of misfortune – the very heralds of Mother Carey.  Luckily this was not the case for the Beagle.

John Masefield, a former Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom (from 1930 to 1967), wrote a poem about Mother Carey – it seemed like a good way to end a Saturday post. (RJV)

Mother Carey (As told Me by the Bo’sun) by John Masefield

Mother Carey? She’s the mother o’ the witches
‘N’ all
sort o’ rips;
She’s a fine gell to look at, but the hitch is,
She’s a sight too fond of ships;
She lives upon an iceberg to the norred,
‘N’ her man he’s Davy Jones,
‘N’ she combs the weeds upon her forred
With pore drowned sailors’ bones.

She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets, or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’,
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed young seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine.’

She’s a hungry old rip ‘n’ a cruel
For sailor-men like we,
She’s give a many mariners the gruel
‘N’ a long sleep under sea;
She’s the blood o’ many a crew upon her
‘N’ the bones of many a wreck,
‘N’ she’s barnacles a-growin’ on her
‘N’ shark’s teeth round her neck.

I ain’t never had no schoolin’
Nor read no books like you,
But I knows ‘t ain’t healthy to be foolin’
With that there gristly two;
You’re young, you thinks, ‘n’ you’re lairy,
But if you’re to make old bones,
Steer clear, I says, o’ Mother Carey,
‘N’ that there Davy Jones.



  1. I identified with the comment about being seasick having spent some time there. It’s a horrible debilitation that can be eased some with dry sodacrackers, but much better treated by lieing prone in one’s bunk. One of my first jobs as a midshipman on a U.S. Navy Destroyer was in plot where you keep track of the ships movements and anything else around you like other ships in a visual presentation on a plexiglass pane. In my first storm off San Diego I would sit at my station behind the plot board with a bucket between my knees so that I could barf when necessary but continue to stand my watch. The most descriptive phrase that all young sailors are familiar with goes as follows: “at first I was afraid I was going to die, but than I was afraid that I would continue to live”. Pat

  2. […] Today was one of those slower days. (For more on the sea life Darwin notes today see posts on Mother Carey’s Chickens and Mail “Trucks” and Flying […]

  3. […] I wrote about storm petrels, or as Darwin called them – Mother Carey’s Chickens.  Here are a few other […]

  4. […] My first thought when I saw the name of this bird was that these were puffins and that this was another case where Darwin named birds after those he was familiar with from back home (puffins are only a northern bird). But in fact, the Puffinus consist of the largest group of birds known as the shearwaters – a name that refers to how they glide just above the surface of the water. There are actually three genus of shearwaters – the Puffinus, Calonectris, and Procellaria.  The later are the petrels (for more on them see Cruising with Elegant Petrels and Mother Carey’s Chickens. […]

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