Photo: JJ Harrison/Wikimedia Creative Commons

Great Shearwater

Ardenna gravis

A common seabird off our Atlantic Coast, seldom coming close to shore except during storms. Often forages in flocks. Commonly feeds around fishing boats, fighting over scraps and offal, seemingly fearless of humans. Although Great Shearwaters are often very numerous in North American waters, they nest only on a few islands in the South Atlantic.
Conservation status Total population has been estimated at around 15 million. Could be vulnerable because of very limited breeding range; Tristan islanders harvest large numbers of adults and young every year from certain colonies.
Family Shearwaters and Petrels
Habitat Open ocean. Favors cold waters at all seasons, moving rapidly across tropical zones during migration only. Tends to occur over colder waters than Cory's Shearwater. Perhaps most common over outer part of continental shelf, avoiding mid-ocean and areas near shore. Nests on hilly islands with soil suitable for nesting burrows.
A common seabird off our Atlantic Coast, seldom coming close to shore except during storms. Often forages in flocks. Commonly feeds around fishing boats, fighting over scraps and offal, seemingly fearless of humans. Although Great Shearwaters are often very numerous in North American waters, they nest only on a few islands in the South Atlantic.
Photo Gallery
  • adult
  • adult
  • adult
  • adult with Humpback Whale
Feeding Behavior

Forages by plunging into water from the air, by diving from surface and swimming underwater, or by seizing items while swimming on the surface. Prey caught underwater is brought to surface and swallowed. May feed in association with whales and dolphins. Typically feeds by day but apparently also at dusk and at night.


Eggs

One. White. Incubation is probably by both sexes, estimated at 55 days. Young: Both parents feed young, visiting at night. Age at first flight is reportedly about 84 days.


Young

Both parents feed young, visiting at night. Age at first flight is reportedly about 84 days.

Diet

Mostly fish and squid. Feeds mainly on small fish and squid that swim in schools near surface; also eats crustaceans, and scavenges offal from fishing boats.


Nesting

Breeds mainly on Gough Island and islands in Tristan da Cunha group in South Atlantic. Arrives at colonies in September, most eggs laid in November, most young leave colony in May. Activity at colony is mainly at night. Courtship display includes pair sitting close together on ground, calling loudly and nibbling at each others' nape feathers. Nest: Site is in burrow, sharply angled and about three feet long; sometimes in crevice among rocks. Nest chamber at end of burrow lined with grass.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Adults leave breeding islands in April and move north rapidly, mostly along western side of Atlantic, becoming common off east coast of North America in June. Spread eastward across North Atlantic during summer, and southward migration is on broad front during August. Nonbreeders remain in North Atlantic at least through November. Rare records off California presumably of birds that rounded tip of South America and went north in "wrong" ocean.

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Migration

Adults leave breeding islands in April and move north rapidly, mostly along western side of Atlantic, becoming common off east coast of North America in June. Spread eastward across North Atlantic during summer, and southward migration is on broad front during August. Nonbreeders remain in North Atlantic at least through November. Rare records off California presumably of birds that rounded tip of South America and went north in "wrong" ocean.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Usually silent at sea, but birds resting on water have a low nasal, squealing call.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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