1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Shearwater

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SHEARWATER, the name of a bird, first published in F. Willughby's Ornithologia (p. 252), as made known to him by Sir T. Browne, who sent a picture of it with an account that is given more fully in J. Ray's translation of that work (p. 334), stating that it is “a Sea-fowl, which fishermen observe to resort to their vessels in some numbers, swimming[1] swiftly to and fro, backward, forward and about them, and doth as it were radere aquam, shear the water, from whence perhaps it had its name.”[2] Ray's mistaking young birds of this kind obtained in the Isle of Man for the young of the coulterneb, now usually called “Puffin,” has already been mentioned under that heading; and not only has his name Puffinus anglorum hence become attached to this species, commonly described in English books as the Manx puffin or Manx shearwater, but the barbarous word Puffinus has come into use for all birds thereto allied, forming a well-marked group of the family Procellariidae (see Petrel), distinguished chiefly by their elongated bill, and numbering some twenty species, if not more—the discrimination of which has taxed the ingenuity of ornithologists. Shearwaters are found in nearly all the seas and oceans of the world,[3] generally within no great distance from the land, though rarely resorting thereto, except in the breeding season. But they also penetrate to waters which may be termed inland, as the Bosporus, where they are known to the French-speaking part of the population as âmes damnées, it being held by the Turks that they are animated by condemned human souls. Four species of Puffinus are recorded as visiting the coasts of the United Kingdom; but the Manx shearwater is the only one that at all commonly breeds in the British Islands. It is a very plain-looking bird, black above and white beneath, and about the size of a pigeon. Some other species are larger, and almost whole-coloured, being of a sooty or dark cinereous hue both above and below. All over the world shearwaters seem to have precisely the same habits, laying their single purely white egg in a hole under ground. The young are thickly clothed with long down, and are extremely fat. In this condition they are thought to be good eating, and enormous numbers are caught for this purpose in some localities, especially of a species, the P. brevicaudus of Gould, which frequents the islands off the coast of Australia, where it is commonly known as the “Mutton-bird.”  (A. N.) 

  1. Meaning, no doubt, skimming or “hovering,” the latter the word used by Browne in his Account of Birds found in Norfolk (Mus. Brit. MS. Sloane, 1830, fol. 5. 22 and 31), written in or about 1662. Edwards (Gleanings, iii. 315) speaks of comparing his own drawing “with Brown's old draught of it, still preserved in the British Museum,” and thus identifies the latter's “shearwater” with the “puffin of the Isle of Man.”
  2. Lyrie appears to be the most common local name for this bird in Orkney and Shetland; but Scraib and Scraber are also used in Scotland. These are from the Scandinavian Skraape or Skrofa, and considering Skeat's remarks (Etym. Dictionary) as to the alliance between the words shear and scrape it may be that Browne's hesitation as to the derivation of “shearwater” had more ground than at first appears.
  3. The chief exception would seem to be the Bay of Bengal and thence throughout the W. of the Malay Archipelago, where, though they may occur, they are certainly uncommon.