Manx shearwater

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Manx shearwater
Manx Shearwater.JPG
Puffinus puffinus
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Procellariiformes
Family: Procellariidae
Genus: Puffinus
Species: P. puffinus
Binomial name
Puffinus puffinus
(Brünnich, 1764)

Procellaria puffinus Brünnich, 1764

The Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus) is a medium-sized shearwater in the seabird family Procellariidae. The scientific name of this species records a name shift: Manx shearwaters were called Manks puffins in the 17th century. Puffin is an Anglo-Norman word (Middle English pophyn) for the cured carcasses of nestling shearwaters. The Atlantic puffin acquired the name much later, possibly because of its similar nesting habits.


Flying in Iceland

This bird is 30–38 cm long, with a 76–89 cm wingspan. It has the typically "shearing" flight of the genus, dipping from side to side on stiff wings with few wingbeats, the wingtips almost touching the water. This bird looks like a flying cross, with its wing held at right angles to the body, and it changes from black to white as the black upperparts and white undersides are alternately exposed as it travels low over the sea.


The shearwaters form part of the Procellariidae family, a widespread group containing nearly 100 species of medium to large seabirds. They have long, narrow wings and the characteristic “tubenose”.[2] The large genus Puffinus includes several species formerly considered to be subspecies of the Manx Shearwater, including the yelkouan shearwater, Balearic shearwater, Hutton's shearwater, black-vented shearwater, fluttering shearwater,[3] Townsend's shearwater and the Hawaiian shearwater.[4][5] Of these, the Hawaiian and possibly Townsend's shearwaters seem to be most closely related to the Manx shearwater.[4]

Also belonging to this complex seem to be several extinct species:

Undescribed remains found on Menorca may belong to an already-named or a new taxon; they are not from the Balearic shearwater (Alcover 2001) which is possibly closer to P. holeae than to any other known species, living or extinct.[citation needed] There also existed a Late Pliocene/Early Pleistocene species known from Ibiza, Puffinus nestori, which may have been the direct ancestor of the Mediterranean shearwater (Heidrich et al. 1998).

The Atlantic forms are parapatric whereas the Pacific forms are sympatric or were not too long ago (Holdaway et al. 2001) and are reproductively isolated by a different circannual rhythm.

The Manx shearwater was first described by Danish zoologist Morten Thrane Brünnich as Procellaria puffinus in 1764.[3][6] In the current scientific name Puffinus derives from "puffin" and its variants, such as poffin, pophyn and puffing,[7] which referred to the cured carcass of the fat nestling of the shearwater, a former delicacy.[8] The original usage dates from at least 1337, but from as early as 1678 the term gradually came to be used for another seabird, the Atlantic Puffin.[7] The current English name was first recorded in 1835 and refers to the former nesting of this species on the Isle of Man.[9]

Range and habitat[edit]

The prefix Manx, meaning from the Isle of Man, originated owing to the once large colony of Manx shearwaters found on the Calf of Man (a small island just south of the Isle of Man). The species became extinct as a breeding bird there owing to the accidental introduction of rats from a shipwreck in the late 18th century; however a recent control program has resulted in Manx shearwaters returning to breed in small numbers.

In flight


Manx shearwaters are long-lived birds. A Manx shearwater breeding on Copeland Island, Northern Ireland, was as of 2003/04 the oldest known living wild bird in the world: ringed as an adult (at least 5 years old) in July 1953, it was retrapped in July 2003, at least 55 years old.[citation needed]

This is a gregarious species, which can be seen in large numbers from boats or headlands, especially on migration in autumn. It is silent at sea, but at night the breeding colonies are alive with raucous cackling calls.

Food and feeding[edit]

The Manx shearwater feeds on small fish (particularly herring, sprat and sardines), crustaceans, cephalopods and surface offal. The bird forages individually or in small flocks, and it makes use of feeding marine mammals and schools of predatory fish, which push prey species up to the surface. It does not follow boats.


This species breeds in the North Atlantic, with major colonies on islands and coastal cliffs around Great Britain and Ireland. Manx shearwaters have nested along the Atlantic coast of northeastern North America since the 1970s and have expanded their breeding range southward into the Gulf of Maine, with a pair confirmed as nesting at Matinicus Rock.[10] They nest in burrows, laying one white egg which they visit only at night to avoid predation by large gulls.


Manx shearwaters migrate over 10,000 km to South America in winter, using waters off southern Brazil and Argentina,[11] so the 55-year-old bird mentioned above probably covered over a million km on migration alone (not counting day-to-day fishing trips). Their migration also appears to be quite complex, containing many stopovers and foraging zones throughout the Atlantic Ocean.[12] Ornithologist Chris Mead estimated that a bird ringed in 1957 (aged about 5 years) and still breeding on Bardsey Island off Wales in April 2002 had flown over 8 million km (5 million miles) during its 50-year life.[13]

Predators and parasites[edit]

Because of their lack of mobility on land, Manx shearwaters are vulnerable to attack by large gulls, such as the great black-backed gull,[14] and great skua.[15] Birds of prey such as the peregrine falcon and golden eagle are also recored as killing adult birds.[16]

Rats and cats are a serious problem where they are present; the large shearwater colony on the Calf of Man was destroyed by rats which arrived from a shipwreck.[17]European hedgehogs eat the eggs of nesting seabirds where they have been introduced.[15] Red deer have been recorded killing and eating young shearwaters on at least Foula, Skokholm and Rùm; on the latter island,4 percent of the chicks are killed by deer, and sheep have also been involved.[18] The reason for the this carnivorous behaviour is thought to be a need for extra calcium.[19])

Manx Shearwaters frequently carry feather lice (Mallophaga) most of which either the feather-eatiers in the groups ischnocera, or Amblycera which also consume blood. The commonest are the Ischnocerans Halipeurus diversus and Trabeculus aviator. The nests of breeding birds frequently contain the shearwater flea Ornithopsylla laetitiae is also commonly present, which shares a common ancestry with North American rabbit fleas.[20] Where their burrows are near those of Atlantic puffins, the tick Ixodes uriae is common.[21] The mite Neotrombicula autumnalis is often present, and has been implicated in spreading puffinosis.[21] Puffinosis is a virus disease of in which young birds get blisters on their feet, conjunctivitis and problems with movement. The death rate can reach 70% in infected birds.[22][23] Internal parasites include the tapeworm Tetrabothrius cylindricus.[24]


The European population of the Manx shearwater has been estimated at 350,000–390,000 breeding pairs or 1,050,000–1,700,000 individual birds and makes up 95% of the world total numbers. Although this species' population now appears to be declining, the decrease is not rapid or large enough to trigger conservation vulnerability criteria. Given its high numbers, this shearwater is therefore classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as being of Least Concern.[1]

In the north of its range, numbers are stable and the range is expanding, but human activities are affecting populations in the Macronesian islands. These include birds stranded when dazzled by artificial lighting. 1000–5000 chicks a year are legally taken for food in the Faroes. Introduced mammals are a problem, although populations can recover when rats and cats are removed from islands. Rabbits may try to occupy burrows, but also dig new tunnels.[3]

In culture[edit]

The large chicks of the Manx shearwater are very rich in oil from their fish diet and have been eaten since prehistoric times. They are easily extricated from their burrows, and the annual crop from the Calf of Man may have been as high as 10,000 birds per year in the seventeenth century. The young birds were also eaten in Ireland, Scotland and the Scottish islands.[25]

The eerie nocturnal cries of nesting shearwaters and petrels has led to associations with the supernatural. The breeding colonies at Trollaval on Rùm and Trøllanes and Trøllhøvdi in the Faroe Islands are believed to have acquired their troll associations from the night-time clamour.[26]


  1. ^ a b BirdLife International (2012). "Puffinus puffinus". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Hoyo, Josep del; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A; de Juana, Eduardo (eds.) (2013). "Procellariidae: Petrels, Shearwaters". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 14 December 2014.  (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c Hoyo, Josep del; Elliott, Andrew; Sargatal, Jordi; Christie, David A; de Juana, Eduardo (eds.) (2013). "Manx Shearwater (‘’Puffinus puffinus’’)". Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions. Retrieved 11 October 2014.  (subscription required)
  4. ^ a b Austin, Jeremy J; Bretagnolle, Vincent; Pasquet, Eric (2004). "A global molecular phylogeny of the small Puffinus shearwaters and implications for systematics of the Little-Audubon's Shearwater complex". Auk 121 (3): 847–864. 
  5. ^ Murphy, Robert Cushman (1952). "The Manx Shearwater, Puffinus puffinus, as a species of world-wide distribution". American Museum Novitates 1586: 1–21. 
  6. ^ Brünnich (1764) p. 29.
  7. ^ a b "Puffin". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 14 December 2014. (subscription required)
  8. ^ Jobling (2010) p. 323.
  9. ^ "Manx". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 14 December 2014. (subscription required)
  10. ^ "Manx Shearwaters Decide National Wildlife Refuge is Perfect Place to Raise a Chick". U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 8 September 2009. Retrieved 25 January 2013. 
  11. ^ T. G. Guilford, T; Meade, J; Willis, J; Phillips, RA; Boyle, D; Roberts, S; Collett, M; Freeman, R; Perrins, CM (2009). "Migration and stopover in a small pelagic seabird, the Manx shearwater 'Puffinus puffinus': insights from machine learning". Proceedings of the Royal Society B 276 (1660): 1215–1223. doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.1577. PMC 2660961. PMID 19141421. 
  12. ^ Freeman, R.; Dean, B.; Kirk, H.; Leonard, K.; Phillips, R. A.; Perrins, C. M.; Guilford, T. (2013). "Predictive ethoinformatics reveals the complex migratory behaviour of a pelagic seabird, the Manx Shearwater". Journal of the Royal Society Interface 10 (84): 20130279. doi:10.1098/rsif.2013.0279.  edit
  13. ^ Anon (18 April 2002). "Oldest bird clocks 5 million miles". Retrieved 31 March 2013. 
  14. ^ "Skomer Island: Manx Shearwater Factsheet". The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Heaney, V; Ratcliffe, N; Brown, A; Robinson, P J; Lock, L (2002). "The status and distribution of European storm-petrels ‘’Hydrobates pelagicus’’ and Manx shearwaters ‘’Puffinus puffinus’’ on the isles of Scilly". Atlantic Seabirds 4 (1): 1–15. 
  16. ^ Wormell, P (1965). "Manx Shearwaters and other sea-birds as prey of Peregrines and Golden Eagles". British Birds 58 (4): 149. 
  17. ^ "Manx Shearwater ‘’Puffinus puffinus’’". Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Brooke (2010) p. ix.
  19. ^ Furness, R W (1988). "Predation on ground-nesting seabirds by island populations of red deer Cervus elaphus and sheep Ovis". Journal of Zoology 216 (3): 565–573. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.1988.tb02451.x. 
  20. ^ Rothschild & Clay (1957) p. 63.
  21. ^ a b Brooke (2010) pp. 16–17.
  22. ^ Harris, M P (1965). "Puffinosis among Manx Shearwaters on Skokholm". British Birds 58 (10): 426–434. 
  23. ^ Macdonald, J W; McMartin, D A; Walker, K G; Carins, M; Dennis, R H (1967). "Puffinosis in Fulmars in Orkney and Shetland". British Birds 60 (9): 356–360. 
  24. ^ Rothschild & Clay (1957) p. 197.
  25. ^ Cocker & Mabey (2005) 21–24.
  26. ^ Cocker & Tipling (2013) pp. 104–106.

Cited texts[edit]

  • Alcover, Josep Antoni (2001): Nous avenços en el coneixement dels ocells fòssils de les Balears. Anuari Ornitològic de les Balears 16: 3–13. [Article in Catalan, English abstract] PDF fulltext
  • Austin, Jeremy J. (1996): Molecular Phylogenetics of Puffinus Shearwaters: Preliminary Evidence from Mitochondrial Cytochrome b Gene Sequences. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 6(1): 77–88. doi:10.1006/mpev.1996.0060 (HTML abstract)
  • Brooke, Michael (2010). The Manx Shearwater. Poyser Monographs. London. ISBN 978-1408137536. 
  • Brunnich, Morten Thrane (1764). Ornithologia Borealis (in Latin). Hafniae. 
  • Bull, John L.; Farrand, John Jr.; Rayfield, Susan & National Audubon Society (1977): The Audubon Society field guide to North American birds, Eastern Region. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. ISBN 0-394-41405-5
  • Cocker, Mark; Mabey, Richard (2005). Birds Britannica. Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-6907-9. 
  • Cocker, Mark; Tipling, David (2013). Birds and People. London =: :Jonathan Cape=. ISBN 978-0224081740. 
  • Heidrich, Petra; Amengual, José F. & Wink, Michael (1998): Phylogenetic relationships in Mediterranean and North Atlantic shearwaters (Aves: Procellariidae) based on nucleotide sequences of mtDNA. Biochemical Systematics and Ecology 26(2): 145–170. doi:10.1016/S0305-1978(97)00085-9 PDF fulltext
  • Holdaway, Richard N; Worthy, Trevor H. & Tennyson, Alan J. D. (2001): A working list of breeding bird species of the New Zealand region at first human contact. New Zealand Journal of Zoology 28(2): 119–187. PDF fulltext
  • Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4. 
  • Rothschild, Miriam; Clay, Theresa (1957). Fleas, Flukes and Cuckoos. A study of bird parasites. New York: Macmillan. 

External links[edit]