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Short-tailed Shearwater

Puffinus tenuirostris
The tube-nosed seabirds, as this group is sometimes called, spend much of their life on the high seas out of sight of land, gleaning food from the water's surface. For most, the nesting season is the only time of the year that they touch land. They are drably colored—usually gray, black, or brown, with white—and range in size from small to very large. External nostrils on the upper mandible endow these birds with an unusually well developed sense of smell and contain a gland used for excreting salt. The order has four families worldwide, of which three are represented in Washington:
This group is diverse and ranges widely in size. A common trait that all members of this family share is that their nostrils are located in a single tube at the top of their bills. Most maneuver well in high winds, and many migrate long distances. Most, but not all, nest in burrows. Those that do nest in burrows visit them only at night. The well-developed sense of smell of the shearwaters may help them find their burrows in the dark.
Uncommon fall and winter pelagic.

    General Description

    The Short-tailed Shearwater is similar in appearance to the Sooty Shearwater, although its bill is smaller, its head is rounder, and its wings are narrower and more angled. Check a field guide for accurate identification.


    The breeding habitat of the Short-tailed Shearwater is on islands, and in some cases mainland areas, where grass and shrubs cover soil soft enough to allow the excavation of a burrow. During the non-breeding season, the Short-tailed Shearwater spends its time on the open ocean, concentrating over upwellings at the edge of the continental shelf in cool water.


    Short-tailed Shearwaters forage mostly by diving from a swimming position on the surface of the water, or by plunging from a few feet above the water's surface. They swim under water by propelling themselves with their wings, and may dive as deep as 60 feet below the surface. They can sometimes be found foraging in association with whales or dolphins.


    Their diet consists of fish, crustaceans, and squid.


    Short-tailed Shearwaters first breed at 5-8 years of age. Colony nesters, Short-tailed Shearwaters typically locate their colonies on islands off southeastern Australia, but will also use mainland areas. The breeding season is from September to April. They are most active in the colonies at night. Both parents help dig a burrow in the soil. At the end of the burrow is a nest chamber that may be lined with grass. The female lays one egg, and both parents incubate for 7-8 weeks. Both feed the young by regurgitation. After 11-15 weeks, the chick leaves the nesting colony and heads to sea.

    Migration Status

    During summer in the Northern Hemisphere, Short-tailed Shearwaters can be found as far north as Alaska, the Bering Strait, and beyond. In April and May, they can be found off the Washington coast. In August and September, they can be seen heading south to breed. Non-breeders may stay in the Northern Hemisphere all year.

    Conservation Status

    The status of the Short-tailed Shearwater is difficult to determine, as it can be difficult to distinguish from the Sooty Shearwater. Total numbers are estimated at more than 20 million.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Where and When to Find in Washington
    Reports vary from one year to the next, but Short-tailed Shearwaters are most often seen in the late summer and fall, although they are relatively uncommon. They are very rare in spring and winter. The best way to see Short-tailed Shearwaters is from a boat. During the fall migration or following an onshore storm, they can sometimes be seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    OceanicUUUR RRRU
    Pacific Northwest CoastRRRR RRRR
    Puget Trough RR
    North Cascades
    West Cascades
    East Cascades
    Canadian Rockies
    Blue Mountains
    Columbia Plateau

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern