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Puffinus griseus - Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater image

Geographic range:


Key features:

The Sooty Shearwater, Puffinus griseus, is a large, slender seabird and is entirely sooty brown above and below. The underwings have contrasting silvery white linings that appear as a blaze. The bill of Puffinus griseus is narrow and black and the feet are a surprising shade of lilac with brown markings.

Similar species:

Puffinus bulleri -- Buller's Shearwater
Puffinus creatopus -- Pink-footed Shearwater
Puffinus tenuirostris -- Short-tailed Shearwater
Puffinus opisthomelas -- Black-vented Shearwater
Puffinus carneipes -- Flesh-footed Shearwater


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), Continental shelf, exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Primary common name:

Sooty Shearwater

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Sooty Shearwater is found in all the world’s oceans, but is only known to breed in the Southern Hemisphere, in both the south Pacific and Atlantic oceans, in sub Antarctic and temperate zones on islands off southeast Australia, New Zealand, Chile, around Cape Horn and numerous other islands including the Falklands, Tasmanian Islands, New South Wales, plus some headlands on the mainland, where there is diggable soil for burrows or rock crevices for nesting.


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), Continental shelf, exposed rocky shore, exposed sandy beaches, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore, protected sandy beaches

Habitat notes:

Puffinus griseus is pelagic and only comes ashore to breed. They concentrate around areas with intense upwelling, or where cold and warm water masses meet, or over the continental shelf in cooler waters. They breed on islands where they can burrow into soft soil or rock crevices in which to situate nests.


Relative abundance:

Abundant in central California between April and October.

Species Description

General description:

The Sooty Shearwater belongs to the order of sea birds known as petrels. The name “shearwater” refers to the sub-division of the Procellariidae that have a skimming flight pattern, with a rapid flap and a stiff-winged glide, close to the surface of the water. When there is no wind to give them lift in their flight they sit on the water in large flocks. The Sooty Shearwater is a large, slender seabird, coming to land only to nest. They have an entirely sooty gray-brown head, dark brown eye, and dark chocolate brown plumage which appears black in flight, with long, narrow wings that have a silvery-white ragged area on the underside. They are slightly paler underneath. Their bill is blackish-gray, long (5 cm) with a hooked tip and sharp blades which allows it to manage slippery fish. Two tubular nostrils (tubenose) are on the upper bill. The legs are gray and the feet are webbed and are a surprising shade of lilac with brown markings. Since it comes to land only to breed the legs are feeble and when ashore it squats rather than standing erect. Males and females are similar. They are generally quiet in flight, but when ashore they are noisy with calls described as: der-rer-ah or coo-roo-ah or koo-wah, koo-wah.

Distinctive features:

This dark brown, large and slender pelagic bird is most often seen in the Monterey Bay area in late summer, streaming low over the water in massive numbers, flying with rapid, stiff wing beats and then gliding. However they are in such large numbers that it is difficult to observe this detail and from shore they look all black.


Length: 43.18-45.72cm (17-18 in) Wingspan: 40-44 cm (15.6-17.6 in) Weight: 600-800 gms (21-28 oz)

Natural History

General natural history:

Puffinus griseus are often seen flying in long lines or grouped tightly together on the water in groups of hundreds or thousands.

When the weather is calm, Puffinus griseus flies low over the ocean\'s surface with quick, stiff wing-beats and short glides. On windy days, they glide over the waves and gliding increases with wind velocity. Its flight is powerful and direct, and this bird can be seen in flight dipping from side to side with wingtips almost touching the water. While a few individual Puffinus griseus may be attracted to boats, most just pass by. The voice of Puffinus griseus is silent in California. Puffinus griseus is the most abundant shearwater off California and can be seen off the entire Coast between April and October. The numbers of Puffinus griseus begin to decrease in early October, and it is uncommon to see this bird from December to late March. Numbers of Puffinus griseus begin to build again in late summer. Puffinus griseus is also fairly common off the entire East Coast of North America in spring, and in the summer off New England and Canada. Puffinus griseus are very rare in the Gulf of Mexico. In the MBNMS area the Sooty is the most abundant bird as many thousands can be seen from shore streaming low and endlessly over the water during the late summer months. They concentrate their feeding over upwellings of the Monterey Bay and their numbers are limited by the food supply. During fall, winter, and spring their numbers are greatly reduced but it is still possible to see some on pelagic trips. Sooty Shearwaters are one of the most numerous shearwaters. (There are 10 species of shearwaters.) Their population estimate is 20,000,000, but in recent years the West Coast population has been decreasing. In the California Current their numbers have fallen by 90% in the last 20 years. Nevertheless it is still considered to be the most abundant bird over the waters of the Monterey Bay. It is not clear whether their decline in numbers is a result of distributional shifts or whether it is truly a population decline. In New Zealand, where there are at least 80 colonies with an approximate total of 5 million pairs, the number of burrows in their breeding areas has declined by 37%. Other declines have been noted at other colonies throughout their range.


In New Zealand, the native Maori traditionally harvest Puffinus griseus each year. They collect the young birds that are just about to fledge from the burrows and often preserve them in salt. Rats and stoats predate on eggs and chicks. Longline fisheries take large numbers of Sooties and other seabirds. Driftnets used to drown over 300,000 annually. Harvesting young birds, ‘muttonbirding’, for food, soap, and oil accounts for a take of about half a million birds annually. This is legal in New Zealand where it occurs mainly in the southern part of New Zealand by the Maori. The chicks are exported for sale throughout the country and this harvest is a considerable industry for the Maori.


Puffinus griseus feeds on pilchards, shrimps, sprats, small squid, jellyfish, anchovies, other small fish and crustaceans, and also offal or chum from fishing boats that they may follow.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

The Sooty Shearwater forages largely by shallow dives from the surface or plunging dives from flight, where it is able to pursue its prey underwater, “swimming” through the water with powerful wing beats and is known to reach depth of 67 meters.

April - August


Puffinus griseus is a spectacular long-distance migrant and many hundreds of thousands can be seen from shore during this migration. They follow a circular route which, in the Atlantic Ocean, covers distances in excess of 14,000 km. While some non-breeders are present off the Coast in all seasons, the breeding adult Puffinus griseus travels north up the western side of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans at the end of the nesting season. This migration occurs in waves of age classes, with the sub-adults moving in the first wave, breeding adults next and the non-breedign adults and fledglings last. After wintering on their breeding grounds in the Antarctic, Sooty Shearwaters embark on one of the largest mass migrations known. Shortly after fledging the population begins to head to the northwest corner of their respective oceans on their way to the north Pacific and regions off Japan, sub-arctic Alaska, and the east and west coasts of the United States. Following prevailing winds they eventually move to the east arriving in western North America and Europe in late summer, spending their time over and on the water feeding where prey is the most abundant. They return directly south in August and arrive back in New Zealand waters around September. Electronic tracking of this species has revealed that the sooty shearwater undertakes the longest migration of any animal tracked to date. Travelling in a figure-eight pattern across the Pacific Ocean, they cover an astounding 65,000 kilometers. This allows the sooty to exploit the greater abundance of prey found in the North Pacific at this time of the year.

June - July


Puffinus griseus reaches subarctic waters where it crosses from west to east.

September - October


Puffinus griseus returns south down the eastern side of the oceans.

September - May


In September immense numbers of Sooty Shearwaters fly south along our coasts to the main breeding grounds on the islands of New Zealand, Australia, and South America. After coming ashore in legions, the birds clean out the burrows that have been left vacant from the previous season. In most instances this is done by the same pairs that occupied them during the previous season. Or, new burrows, measuring up to three meters long, are dug into the ground, under tussock grass, low scrub, or Olearia. Or a rock crevice is used for a nest. Sooty shearwaters generally start breeding between the ages of five to seven. They typically mate for life, attracting a partner through a duet of courtship calls and gentle mutual nibbling. A breeding congregation can exceed 2.5 million pairs. A single white egg is laid during a three week period from the end of November to mid-December. Both parents share in incubating the egg for approximately 53 days. Thus by late January or early February the chicks hatch and are then fed by both parents, who spend days foraging at sea, returning at night to feed their chick. Breeding grounds are a swarming pandemonium of returning adults at dusk or of outgoing adults at dawn. The night time visits are boisterous, with the parents crashing through the trees and landing on their island with a loud thump. This nightly homecoming of sooties to islands of southern New Zealand after days of foraging has been described as one of the marvels of the world as hundreds will collect on the water off shore before 9 p.m. Soon there will be thousands and then they will rise en masse and begin to circle the island containing their burrows.Then they come to ground with a thud and a rustle as they disappear into their burrow. They feed on fish, crustacea, and cephalopods, spending 1 to 3 days away from their burrow on short provisioning trips and from 5 to 16 days on longer trips to the Antarctic Polar Front, where competition is less than close to the breeding grounds. The parent that stays behind at the nest may fast up to 16 days. The young are fed regurgitated oil digested from prey eaten by the parent. Although a chick may go without any food for up to 16 days, when the parent does return the amount it provides to the chick is large and the chick’s growth is spectacular, seeming to thrive on the irregular diet. By autumn in the southern hemisphere, when they are approximately 97 days old, the young birds are ready to head out to sea for their migration northward. At this time the chicks are so fat they are larger than their parents and it is at this time that that they are harvested by Maoris. (The muttonbird season, restricted to Maoris begins in April and runs into May.)

Listing Status:

Globally the Sooty Shearwater is considered a Near Threatened species. Although the population is considered large, it is thought to have undergone a moderately rapid decline owing to the impact of fisheries, particularly longline fisheries, the harvesting of its young, introduced predators, and changes in their food supply which could be a result of commercial fishing and possibly climate change. In 2010 the IUCN listed the Sooty Shearwater as Near Threatened, a Red List category.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Davis, J. and A. Baldridge. 1987. The Bird Year. Boxwood Press, Pacific Grove, CA.
Dunn, J.L. 1999. Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 464 p.
Stallcup, R. 1990. Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific. Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Stinson Beach, CA. 214 p.
Images of Life on Earth. 2009. Heermann’ gull, Larus heermanni

BirdLife International
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater

Birds of the World
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds
Accessed 05/17/2009 for Albatross
Accessed 01/15/2009 for Clark's Grebe
Accessed 01/20/2009 for Great Egret
Accessed 02/03/2009 for American White Pelican
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/12/2009 for Black-necked Stilt
Accessed 02/28/2009 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 04/11/2009 for Long-billed Curlew
Accessed 04/13/2009 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 09/10/2009 for Eared Grebe
Accessed 11/11/2009 for American Avocet
Accessed 01/26/2010 for Pigeon Guillemot
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 07/07/2009 for Pied-billed Grebe
Accessed 04/04/2010 for Osprey
Accessed 08/30/2010 for Ruddy Turnstone
Accessed 10/10/2010 for Pacific Loon
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater
Accessed 10/30/2010 for Surf Scoter
Accessed 12/04/2010 for Bufflehead
Accessed 02/01/2011 for American Coot
Accessed 02/20/2011 for Western Sandpiper
Accessed 03/04/2011 for Least Sandpiper.
Accessed for California Condor

Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater

New Zealand Birds
Accessed 10/15/2010 for Sooty Shearwater

Seattle Audubon Society.
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
Accessed 02/28/2009 for Marbled Godwit
Accessed 04/13/2009 for Heermann’s Gull
Accessed 03/15/2009 for Whimbrel
Accessed 06/20/2010 for Black Turnstone
Accessed 12/15/2009 for Black-crowned Night Heron
Accessed 02/01/2011 for American Coot