Birds – Greater Shearwater

(Puffinus major)


Length—19 to 20 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts dark grayish brown. The feathers, except when old, edged with lighter brown; the wings and tail darkest ; lightest shade on neck ; the white feathers of the fore neck abruptly marked off from the dark feathers of the crown and nape. Under parts white, shaded with brownish gray on sides; under tail coverts ashy gray; upper coverts mostly white. Wings long and pointed. Bill, which is dark horn color, is about as long as head, and has a strong hook at the end. Legs and feet yellowish pink or flesh color.

Range—Over the entire Atlantic Ocean, from Cape Horn and Cape of Good Hope to Arctic Circle.

Season—Irregular visitor to our coast; abundant far off it in winter.

Off the banks of Newfoundland and southward, passengers on the ocean liners sometimes see immense flocks of these birds, smaller than gulls, though larger than pigeons, flying close over the waves, in a direct course, with strong wing beats, then floating often half a mile with no perceptible motion of the wings. The stronger the gale blows, the more does the shearwater seem to revel in it; for as the waves are lifted high enough to curl over in a thin sheet, allowing the light to strike through, the tiny fish are plainly revealed, and quick as thought the bird dives through the combing crest to snap up its prey. Any small particles of animal food cast up by the troubled waters are snatched at with spirit, while with uninterrupted flight the shearwater sweeps over the waves in wide curves, now deep in the trough, now high above the great swells breaking into foam; but always with ” its long, narrow wings set stiffly at right angles with the body,” to quote Brewster. Sir T. Browne, who was the first to speak of this bird or its immediate kin, wrote a quaint account of it which is still preserved in the British Museum. “It is a Sea-fowl,” he says, ” which fishermen observe to resort to their vessels in some numbers, swimming (sic) swiftly too and fro, backward, forward and about them, and doth, as it were, radere aquam, shear the water, from whence, perhaps, it had its name.” No doubt the venerable ornithologist meant to say skimming instead of swimming, for the shearwater almost never rests on the water, except, as is supposed, after dark, to sleep. So characteristic is this constant roving on the wing, that the Turks around the Bosphorus, where these birds have penetrated, think they must be animated by condemned human souls; hence the name Ames damnees given the poor innocents by the French. Indeed, all we know about these birds is from hasty glances as they sweep by us at sea; for, although common immediately off our coast in winter, they are never seen to alight on it; and as for either the bird’s nest, eggs, and fledglings, they are still absolutely unknown to scientists. A species that is abundant off Australia burrows a hole in the ground near the shore and deposits one pure white egg at the end of the tunnel, just as many petrels do; and it is reasonable to suppose the greater shearwater makes a similar nest. Some white eggs received from Greenland are thought to belong to this species.