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10 Fascinating Facts About the Christmas Shearwater

The Christmas Shearwater, scientifically known as Puffinus nativitatis, is a small seabird that is endemic to the Pacific Ocean. During the breeding season, these birds can be found nesting on the islands of the Galapagos, Cocos, and Malpelo.

In this article, we will explore the identification, plumages and molts, and similar species of this fascinating bird.


The Christmas Shearwater measures approximately 30 cm in length and has a wingspan of around 77 cm. These birds are long-winged and have a streamlined body, which helps them navigate the windy oceanic environment.

They have a dark, chocolate-brown plumage, with a white underbelly and yellow feet. Their bill is hooked, and their eyes are dark.

When in flight, the Christmas Shearwater looks uniform in color and lacks distinctive markings. Field


Identifying Christmas Shearwaters can be tricky because they resemble several other seabirds in their range.

To help differentiate them from other species, one can use their unique features, such as how they fly. Christmas Shearwaters have a characteristic “shearing” flight, where they glide low over the water’s surface, with their wings making a V shape.

This unique behavior is attributed to the bird’s common name.

Similar Species

Several other shearwater species inhabit the same areas as the Christmas Shearwater, such as the Audubon’s Shearwater and Wedge-tailed Shearwater. These species have varying plumage differences.

The Audubon’s Shearwater is noticeably smaller than the Christmas Shearwater with a white belly and white underwings. The Wedge-tailed Shearwater has a longer tail and pale underwing as well.

A helpful tip for identifying these species is to take notice of their distinctive flight characteristics.


The Christmas Shearwater undergoes one complete molt each year, which takes place after the breeding season. After the molt, an individual Christmas Shearwater will have a uniform brown plumage.

Sexes are alike, but juveniles have a paler plumage color.


Christmas Shearwaters undergo an annual complete molt, which renews their feathers. The timing of the molt is dependent on the breeding season, with birds molting after the breeding season is over.

Molting is an energy-intensive process that requires a substantial amount of resources to complete. During the molt, birds will be grounded, waiting for their new feathers to grow in.

In conclusion, the Christmas Shearwater is a seabird endemic to the Pacific that has a distinctive shearing flight and uniform brown plumage, making it a unique sight. By using the bird’s appearance, flight behavior, and differences from similar species, you can identify it in the field with ease.

Understanding how the bird molts during the year makes it easier to identify them during different stages of the feather cycle. Observing this amazing bird should be appreciated and respected in its natural habitat.

Systematics History

The Christmas Shearwater falls under the taxonomic order Procellariiformes and the family Procellariidae. These seabirds are part of a cosmopolitan group that includes albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters.

The family consists of over 90 species, mainly inhabiting the Southern Hemisphere.

Geographic Variation

The Christmas Shearwater has a rather specific breeding range, which encompasses the Pacific Ocean. They breed on the Cocos, Malpelo, and Galapagos Islands.

During the non-breeding season, they disperse throughout the eastern tropical Pacific, ranging from southern California to northern Peru.


The Christmas Shearwater has five recognized subspecies, namely P. n.

nativitatis, P. n.

assimilis, P. n.

myrtae, P. n.

macrodactylus, and P. n.

heraldicus. P.

n. nativitatis breeds on the Galapagos Islands.

P. n.

assimilis breeds on the Cocos Islands, P. n.

myrtae breeds on Malpelo Island, and P. n.

heraldicus inhabits the Juan Fernndez Archipelago in the southeast Pacific. Although the differences in subspecies are subtle, they have been determined based on the bird’s size, wing shape, and bill length.

Related Species

Christmas Shearwaters are closely related to several other shearwater species, such as the Bulwer’s Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, and Audubon’s Shearwater, all of which thrive in the Pacific Ocean. The Buller’s Petrel is the most closely related species and is sometimes considered the same species taxonomically.

Historical Changes to Distribution

Historically, Christmas Shearwaters had some of their largest populations in the Galapagos Islands until the appearance of invasive species such as rats, cats and dogs. These invasive species contributed to the reduction of native species as they consumed or displaced the resources of the native species.

Efforts have been implemented to eradicate invasive species and habitat restoration on the Galapagos Islands to help recover breeding populations. Overall, the birds’ showing an increasing trend in population following conservation efforts.

In addition to the impact of invasive species, the Christmas Shearwater has faced additional threats, such as bycatch in commercial fisheries and marine pollution. The impact of these threats on the species’ population and distribution is still not fully understood, but ongoing monitoring and conservation efforts remain crucial.


The Christmas Shearwater is a unique and fascinating seabird species that calls the Pacific Ocean home. Through reproductive isolation and evolution, the small differences in their respective geographic and subspecies populations have arisen.

However, in recent decades, mankind’s influence has put these beloved creatures under pressure, which emphasizes the importance of protecting the territories and habitats in which they reside, ensuring their population’s long-term welfare. Conservation efforts have helped stabilize the Christmas Shearwater populations, but challenges remain.

Continued research and conservation efforts will support understanding the distribution and biology of this seabird, ultimately leading to conservation measures that help ensure their continued survival.


During the breeding season, the Christmas Shearwater is restricted to remote oceanic islands in the Pacific, including the Galapagos, Malpelo, and Cocos Islands. These islands offer a variety of habitats, with the birds nesting in areas ranging from rocky cliffs to lush vegetation.

Christmas Shearwaters are burrow nesters, digging burrows in either exposed or vegetated substrates. They tend to nest in areas with relatively few predators, as they fly to forage at night, making predation a potential problem for their young.

While away, they rest on the ocean’s surface in flocks.

Movements and Migration

Christmas Shearwaters are considered resident species and do not migrate long distances like other seabirds. Instead, they undergo post-breeding dispersal, traveling to warmer regions of the Pacific during the non-breeding season.

These areas include the eastern tropical Pacific, ranging from California to Peru. Traveling can be in small or large groups, depending on the bird’s age or living arrangements, sometimes going so far as to form flocks with other shearwater species.

Christmas Shearwaters show a unique behavior of foraging on the ocean surface at night, opportunistically feeding on small fish, squids, and crustaceans. They have a flight pattern known as “shearing,” which involves low glides across the sea’s surface.

Shearing flight patterns allow them to detect and chase prey through the water with their strong bill and hooked tip. Although the Christmas Shearwater moves short distances from their breeding range to their foraging range, they are at risk of colliding with fishing nets and longline bait.

Fisheries across their range have been identified as a potential threat, as some Christmas Shearwaters become accidently caught in fishing gear and drown. Longline fishing presents a danger to the species as seabirds are attracted to the bait and get hooked or entangled in the lines.

Such risks indicate the need for effective management measures to safeguard the vulnerable population of the Christmas Shearwater. The Christmas Shearwater often nest alongside other seabird species that also inhabit the islands in their range.

Movements may also overlap into other species territories during the non-breeding period. Among these are the flightless cormorant, Great Frigatebird, Red-footed Booby, and swallow-tailed gull, among others.

Though there is potential risk of competition for resources, they coexist without issues.


The Christmas Shearwater’s restricted geographic habitat range and short-distance movements, compared to other species, do not decrease the risks and challenges that face the bird on a daily basis. Conservation measures, effective fisheries management, and habitat restoration must be implemented, considering the range and degree of threats the species is encounter.

Increased awareness of the unique biology and ecology of the Christmas Shearwater is necessary to promote effective conservation measures, promoting a sustainable approach benefiting both the environment and the species that reside therein.

Diet and Foraging


Christmas Shearwaters are primarily nocturnal feeders, foraging for prey on the ocean’s surface. They have unique feeding behavior, which involves gliding or “shearing” low over the water, often in groups, looking for prey.

When they find prey, they plunge into the water feet-first or dive forward and emerge with the catch in their bill. Christmas Shearwaters are opportunistic feeders, consuming various types of food, including fish, squid, and crustaceans.


The Christmas Shearwater’s diet varies by location and prey availability. They are known to feed on small pelagic fish such as sardines, anchovies, and mackerel, and small squids such as the diaphanous glass squid, Histioteuthis bonnellii.

Additionally, they are opportunistic feeders and have been recorded taking food scraps left by fishing boats and scavenging on dead animals.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Christmas Shearwaters have a specialized metabolic adaptation that allows them to conserve energy while foraging at night. They have low basal metabolic rates compared to other birds and are capable of reducing their body temperature at night, which allows them to conserve energy while searching for food.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


One of the primary ways Christmas Shearwaters communicate is through vocalization. They produce various types of calls, including a short, grunting call, which is used during courtship or while incubating eggs.

These sounds carry through the air and down burrows created by the birds, used to communicate around the colony. In addition to grunting, Christmas Shearwaters produce a range of calls that are used during different behaviors; calls during rest and calls during starvation.

Young chicks produce begging vocalizations that increase when they are hungry, and adults emit a call while visiting the nest to give food to their young. Calls are specific to certain behaviors during foraging and breeding periods.

The vocalization behavior varies by location, with some audios distinct between the subspecies. The auditory signals display a difference between populations on separate islands.

These differences suggest that there could be reproductive isolation and evolutionary divergence.


The Christmas Shearwater is a unique seabird that has a specialized feeding behavior, nocturnal foraging with distinct vocalization behaviors. They have evolved a metabolic adaptation that allows them to conserve energy while searching for food, and have dietary flexibility, consuming various types of small food sources.

The uniqueness of vocal behavior across regions and locations suggests divergence among subspecies through reproductive isolation. Conservation efforts must target these characteristics to preserve the species and use this knowledge to insight conservation action for continued efforts and further understand the ecology of Christmas Shearwaters.



Christmas Shearwaters are highly skilled aerialists, owing to their long, pointed wings, and streamlined body shape. They fly with ease through the air, using the wind currents, tucking their wings, and making low, gliding passes over the ocean.

On land, they have a waddling gait, walking stiffly and with some awkwardness. They use their powerful bills to preen and maintain their feathers, which are essential for survival in the oceanic environment.

Self Maintenance

Like other seabirds, Christmas Shearwaters spend a good deal of time maintaining their plumage, which serves several purposes. Feathers keep the bird clean, waterproof, and aerodynamic.

Christmas Shearwaters preen their feathers and use their bills to spread natural oils produced by their uropygial gland, which helps waterproof their feathers. They also use their bills to get rid of parasites on their feathers and body.

Agonistic Behavior

Christmas Shearwaters practice various agonistic behaviors during their breeding season, which involve conflicts between individuals. Agonistic behaviors include bill-dipping, wing displays, and the ability to defend their burrow and mate from intruders.

These behaviors come into play when territories, mates, and nest sites are threatened.

Sexual Behavior

During the breeding season, Christmas Shearwaters engage in courtship and mating rituals, which involve a unique behavior of sky-dancing while calling out or head-flicking with other shearwaters. The males search for a potential mate, performing elaborate courtship rituals, such as carrying out small pebbles or stones to the female.


Christmas Shearwaters have a reproductive cycle that starts during December, with both sexes arriving on the breeding grounds. They start to excavate their burrow and construct nests underground during a courtship period that can last several months.

Eggs are laid at the entrance of the burrow, and incubated during the day, and during the night, both parents take equal turns caring for the egg. The incubation period lasts approximately 55 days, after which the chick hatches.

Once hatched, the chick is covered with a layer of down and is unable to regulate its body temperature without visits from either parent. The chicks are fed regurgitated food by both parents, which usually consists of small, energy-rich catch like krill and small fish.

The chicks stay inside the burrow where they are protected from predators, such as the Galapagos hawk or cats until they are ready to fledge.

Demography and Populations

Christmas Shearwaters have a relatively stable population, with an estimated 50,000-100,000 breeding pairs distributed across the eastern tropical Pacific. However, their populations have been threatened by the introduction of invasive species, including rats, feral cats, and dogs, which prey on both the adult birds and their young.

Although conservation efforts have been implemented, such as trapping and eradicating invasive species, efforts are underway to restore habitats and impose protection to mitigate these negative effects on populations. Additionally, climate change, marine pollution, and bycatch in commercial fishing all pose additional risks, which require attention and action to reduce impact, preserving populations for future generations.

In conclusion, the Christmas Shearwater is a remarkable seabird endemic to the Pacific Ocean with unique physical adaptations, feeding behaviors, and vocalizations. The bird shows significant behavior complexity in response to challenges of survival above and under the sea.

These birds are a keystone species, and their disappearance or population collapse would have considerable ecological consequences in their habitat. The ongoing conservation efforts aiming to safeguard their habitats are essential to ensure the survival of this incredible species.

Through cautious monitoring and conservation efforts, we can protect this bird, ultimately providing a model for preservation and advancing our understanding and ability to safeguard threatened species in the future.

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