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Manx Shearwater {Birds of Europe}

Updated on July 5, 2015

Manx Shearwater. Puffinus puffinus

Skomer Island Pembrokeshire Wales.UK
Skomer Island Pembrokeshire Wales.UK | Source


The Manx shearwater Puffinus puffinus belongs to the Order of birds known as the Procellariformes and the family Procellariidae within that order. The scientific name Puffinus is from old English or Cornish origin for the Puffin **

In the UK they are placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {losses of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so} with an estimated 300,000 pairs in summer. In Ireland they are also placed on the Amber list due to localized breeding populations with more than 90% breeding at less than 10 sites.

In Europe they are of 2 concern,most in Europe are also localized. The total European population is estimated at between 350,000-390,000 pairs in summer. These birds breed in the north Atlantic regions south to Argentina and rarely Australia. They are Pelagic birds that use island burrows or cliffs for nesting locations.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Greater shearwater Puffinus gravis

Taken in North Carolina USA
Taken in North Carolina USA | Source

Christmas shearwater Puffinus navivitatis

USFWS-Hawilan Islands NWR.
USFWS-Hawilan Islands NWR. | Source

Audubon's shearwater.


What are Shearwaters ?

Shearwaters are medium sized,long winged sea birds with thirty + species worldwide. A few of the larger species are placed in the genus Calonectris,most of the smaller ones ,including our subject are placed in the genus Puffinus. They are closely related to some of the Petrels such as the Storm Petrel **.

They are most common in temperate and cold waters and are pelagic outside the breeding season. Many of them use a 'shearing' flight technique to move across wave fronts with the minimum of active flight. Our subject is cruciform in flight,with their long wings held directly out from their bodies. Many are long distant migrants.

Those in the genus Puffinus include the Christmas shearwater,Puffinus nativitatis {pictured right},The Balearic shearwater,P.mauretanicus,breeds on islands and coastal cliffs of the Balearic Islands. Audubon's shearwater P.iherminieri { though it has several Synonyms}. The Little Shearwater,P.assimisis,a species which occurs throughout the oceans south of the Tropic of Capricorn.

Here we review the Manx shearwater and as always commence with a description of the subject under review.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Manx Shearwater

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley.
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley. | Source

Illustration of the head of Puffinus puffinus.


Description of the Manx Shearwater

The bill which is furrowed above,with a double tube,is blackish brown,the base lighter coloured and has a yellowish-brown tint,the tips of both mandibles much hooked downwards. the iris is dark brown.

The head on the sides and crown,the neck on the back, and nape a dusky brownish black,with a slight tinge of grey and a glossy lustre. The sides of the neck are mottled grey and white. The chin throat and breast white,below on the latter behind the legs is a brownish black streak. The back is dusky brownish black,with a slight tinge of grey and a glossy lustre.

The wings when closed reach the tip of the tail they expand to a width of over two feet. The greater and lesser wing coverts,white the primary feathers black. The tail brownish black,the under tail coverts white. The legs are brown behind,in front a dull yellowish red,they are laterally compressed. The outer toe brown the remainder a dull yellowish red .The webs are rayed with brown.

Manx Shearwater feeding in rough waters off the Isle Of Man. Courtesy of Manxbirdvideo. Standard You Tube License

Manx Shearwater

Taken at Rocha Uruquay.
Taken at Rocha Uruquay. | Source

Manx Shearwater flying in waters off Iceland.

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons via snowmanradio
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons via snowmanradio | Source

Puffin-In the past confusion over the scientific names confused the two species

Uploaded to Commons by Ubberaschungsbilder
Uploaded to Commons by Ubberaschungsbilder | Source

General and historical information.

The call of this bird so scared the Norse sailors that they thought the Scottish Island of Rum was inhabited by Trolls. It is one of the longest lived birds in Britain with a least one living fifty five years. The diet of this bird consists of small fish and squid supplemented by small crustaceans and offal taken from the surface or by diving.

It seems the species escaped the attention of the earliest European ornithologists,notwithstanding the pains which were then bestowed upon it by Gesner and Aldrovandus,upon a discovery and identification of a rare or imperfectly known species of birds. It was fellow countryman Dr.Caius who sent to Gesner a drawing and description of the ' ' Puphinus anglicus ',which Androvandus improved into Puffinus anglorum,, however the bird in question was the common Puffin Fratercula arctica,and not the Shearwater. The transfer of the generic and specific names of the Puffin to the Shearwater was accomplished at a later date.

The bird was formerly referred to as Puffinus anglorum. During the nineteenth century it was said to be a common visitor to the coast of the eastern United States,but American ornithologists of that time asserted it was very rarely obtained on their seaboard.

On the Isle of Man {hence the name Manx} the colony of this Shearwater must have been very prodigious . Records reveal as many as 9,000 nestlings were taken in a single summer during the early 1700's. It is regrettable that this memorable colony of Shearwaters which flourished so prodigiously in the middle of the 17th century,passed away almost unnoticed.

The only historical fact that I could discover was furnished in a private letter written by Jardine Hall February 24,1836,, to Sir William Jardine,who remarked, " I had almost forgot the Isle of Man. It is nearly nine years since I was there,we went to seek the Manx Petrel but were unsuccessful.The people said that it had certainly left the Calf of Man several years previously,and if any number had been there we would not have missed them"

One of the traditional names applied to the Manx Shearwater is 'Crew '. In the Zoologist,1888,page 371, Mr R.M.Barrington, who has visited many island haunts of this Shearwater expresses that the Island of Skomer {off the coast of Wales UK.} is the greatest breeding place of the Manx Shearwater " and for its size perhaps the Greatest in Europe"

Records inform us that Skomer Shearwaters excavated their burrows all over the island,which measures about four miles in circumference. The Puffin was considered to be hostile to any species of petrel,indeed the extermination of the Shearwaters,which formerly nested in the Island of Mingalay was accounted fro by an invasion of Puffins into their favoured haunts.However, it seems Mr Barrington had a different experience on Skomer,where these two species of the sea were often found in the same burrows

Habits and lifestyle.

During the latter half of the 1800's ,Butler, studied these birds on several occasions, and often witnessed the return 'home' of birds that had spent the day out at sea. He writes "The noisy chorus produced by the cries of those returning home uniting tumultuously with the vociferations of their brooding partners must be heard to be believed. Anyone who has occasion to invade a burrow of the Manx shearwater in the nesting time should be prepared for a loud cackling and scolding from the owner,which is also quick to employ its sharp bill as a weapon of defence. But the complaints of such an injured individual can convey no conception of the babel of voices heard when an entire Shearwater colony unites in an nocturnal concert."

" Although the Manx shearwater is an expert diver it does not take its prey from any meaningful depth below the surface.Nor does it remain swimming on the surface of the water for any length of time,but prefers to continue its restless flight across the trough of the sea all through the day. The birds do not literally shear the crest of the waves,but only skims the surface."

" The manner of flight is peculiar and dissimilar to that of the gull consisting as it does of five to six quick beats followed by a graceful gliding motion. This flight mode is varied by many wonderful curvettes, none usually executed over the sea at a greater elevation than some thirty feet."

In flight of the seas of Iceland

Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by snowmanradio
Originally posted on Flickr uploaded to Commons by snowmanradio | Source

Burrow of the Manx shearwater. | Source

Egg of Puffinus puffinus

Museum of Wiesbaden Germany
Museum of Wiesbaden Germany | Source

Breeding nest and eggs

Butler also studied the nesting burrows of this species and made the following informative observations. " My personal enquiries into the nesting habits of the Manx shearwater were chiefly carried out on the island of Eigg,which has long afforded shelter to this interesting bird. perhaps the greatest number of Shearwaters make their burrows in a grassy shelf of the precipices upon the west side of the island,which formerly supplied an eyrie to the White tailed eagle **,Haliaetus albicilla. The cliffs rise here to a height of several hundred feet,and the Shearwater colony could not be reached by the most ecperienced cliff-climber without a strong rope."

" The burrows which I opened were situated in grassy slopes above the cliffs on the north east side of the island. Saxby stated that the burrows of the Shearwaters which breed in Shetland vary for eighteen inches to two feet in length,but this probably depends on the character of the soil. The burrows which I examined could be probed to their extremity by my arm,and generally ran from right to left. The nest burrows contained fibres and the stems of grasses,evidently gathered from near the entrance."

A single white egg is deposited by the female near the extremity of the burrow. The eggs are incubated by both sexes for a period of forty seven to fithty days. The young will stay safe in the burrow for a further sixty two to seventy six days. During the breeding season the Manx shearwater spends the hours of daylight either upon the open sea or resting in its burrows or among the high rocks.

The chicks is at first adorned with a covering of delicate grey down which covers the entire surface except the breast, the down of which is nearly white or grey tinged with white.The nestling down is soon replaced by a black and white garb,which is worn by adults and young indifferently. In the bird of the first year the breast is of a deep ash grey,the upper plumage dusky brown,which becomes by degrees darker.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.

Releasing Juveniles in Corvo. Courtesy of IncaPG


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, I like you think that many species of pelagic birds will adapt to the ever increasing threat. I just hope they can remain in our part s of the world to do so. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      It is a hard life for our pelagic wonders, who no doubt have it nearly as hard as some of those challenged by extreme cold. Truly, he survival of the fittest will cause them to adapt or they will perish with global warming. I have faith that many of them will hold up under these most extreme conditions for them in the future.


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