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Short-tailed Shearwater

Puffinus Tenvirostris

Short-tailed Shearwater
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Short-tailed Shearwate • Puffinus Tenvirostris
Also referred to as Mutton Birds, the Short-tailed Shearwater is one of a group of 100 medium to large sea birds, with tube-like nostrils on the top of their upper beak. Adult birds have a wing span of about 1 m, weighing approximately 500 grams, have webbed feet and are good swimmers.

Distribution and Migration
It is estimated that there is approximately 23 million short tailed Shearwaters that breed in about 250-280 colonies around south eastern Australia from September to April. Of these 18 million arrive in Tasmania each year. The colonies can usually be found in headlands and islands covered with tussocks and succulent vegetations such as pigface and ice plants. Headlands allow the birds easy access for take off and landing. The largest colony in Australia is found on Babel Island off the east coast of Flinders.

It is difficult to define the Shearwaters migratory path, as they don’t come to shore during the months of the migration, with exhausted and starved birds often found washed up on beaches of Japan, the Aleution Islands, North America and Australia. This originally led scientists to believe that the birds flew a figure of eight course across the Pacific Ocean. recent studies however, suggest the majority of birds merely fly north along the western part of the Pacific ocean to the Artic region and return southwards through the centre of the ocean. Whichever way they migrate, the birds end up travelling about 15,000 kms in each direction annually.

Breeding and Life Cycle

Breeding season occurs during September to April. Each year the length of time spent by young birds at the colonies increase until they are five years old and begin breeding themselves. Prior to breeding, the young birds fly in with the breeding adults in preparation for the following breeding season. On arrival in September/October at the colony, the birds meet with their chosen mates and begin the task of tidying up the old burrows or excavating new ones. The burrows are about 1 metre long.

In early November the birds leave the colony to spend some time feeding before returning to lay a single white egg in late November. The egg hatches in January and both parents participate in feeding the chick. The chick rapidly puts on weight and is almost twice the weight of the parents, when the parents depart from early April, leaving behind the young birds still covered in down. From this time until early May the chicks do not eat. They rapidly lose weight and acquire their flight feathers. Within two to three weeks after being left by the parents, the yond birds begin their migratory flight, unassisted by experienced birds.

The average lifespan is 15-19 years, although they have been known to live up to 38 years.

Shearwaters feed on krill, squid and fish. Their main methods of feeding include plunging into the water, pursuing underwater, surface seizing, scavenging, hydroplaning and bottom feeding. During the breeding season the adults feed in the locality of the colony. Whilst on migration, they feed whenever food is available.

A regulated bag limit and open season exist on mutton-birds each year. In Tasmania, around 200,000 chicks are harvested and sold annually. The Aboriginals of the Flinders Island Group are well regarded for their expertise in capturing the young chicks. They used the mutton bird as a major food source and the oil from the bird was used to rub on their bodies for warmth, as well as for medicinal purposes. Mutton Birds are now sold as a delicacy.

Despite the number of Short-tailed Shearwaters, they are over-harvesting and habitat destruction. Pigs, cattle and sheep have destroyed whole colonies, whilst feral cats find the chick easy prey. Soil erosion after fire can destroy suitable nesting sites. In addition, gillnet fisheries in the North Pacific accidentally drown up to 50,000 birds annually. Birds can also ingest small plastic particles while at sea, which may limit the bird’s ability to maintain condition and contribute to deaths during migration. Natural mortality occurs mainly during the first migration due to exhaustion and starvation.

First described by a Dutch ornithologist, Jacob Temminck in 1835, who named them Puffinus Tenuirostris (tenui: slender, rostrum: bill). Members of Captain Cook’s third expedition in 1778 also recorded the Shearwater whilst sailing in the Artic Ocean.

Places you can see Short-tailed Shearwater include: Babel Island, Swansea, Montague Island.

Source: from many places, including Parks and Wildlife Service Tasmania

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Common Name Scientific Name Where Found
Short-tailed Shearwater
Mutton bird
Puffinus Tenvirostris  
Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Procellariiformes
Family: Procellariidae
Genus: Puffinus
Species: P. tenuirostris
Binomial name: Puffinus Tenvirostris

Shearwater • Other links

Australian Museum Online
• Ph: +61 2 9320 6000 (General enquiries) • Email: via online form
Short-tailed Shearwater: Ten Facts • Email
Separation of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters / Bird Guide Pelagics
• Email • Identifying between the Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters.
Short-tailed Shearwaters by USGS
• Email • Includes some images of the Shearwaters.
Parks and Wildlife Tasmania
• Check out their information on Short-tailed Shearwater.
NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service
• Check out their info on Shearwaters.


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