Proposal (448) to South American Classification Committee


Change the English name of Puffinus gravis from Greater Shearwater to Great Shearwater


NOTE: The following proposal was submitted to and passed NACC, and is here submitted with Steve Howell’s permission.


I believe that everywhere else in the world this species is called simply Great Shearwater rather than Greater Shearwater. For example, obviously in all the European literature, including the Birdlife International conservation-oriented literature, and in Peter Harrison’s Seabirds of the World books, Hadoram Shirihai’s Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife (2007), Mark Beaman’s Checklist of Palearctic Birds (1994), Howell and Webb’s Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America (1995), the recent Checklist of the Birds of Northern South America (Rodner et al. 2000), the Handbook of Australian, New Zealand, and Antarctic Birds (Marchant and Higgins 2000), the Sibley and Monroe (1990) Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World, the Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 1 (del Hoyo et al. 1992), the IOC’s Birds of the World (Gill and Wright 2006), Woods’ Guide to the Birds of the Falkland Islands (1988) (where the species breeds), and even Alvaro Jaramillo’s Birds of Chile (2003).


I am sure there are non-North American books that use Greater Shearwater but these are very much in the minority.


Adopting this small change would bring the AOU into accord with the rest of the world for what is, after all, a very wide-ranging species.


Other minor arguments that could be made include:


There is the grammatical point that greater and lesser should refer to two comparative entities (as in scaup, prairie-chickens, yellowlegs, etc.), and yes, I know there are lots of exceptions in the world of bird names. Nonetheless there isn’t a Lesser Shearwater, and Great Shearwater isn’t the biggest shearwater, but it’s still a big shearwater, like Great Egret or Great Snipe, etc.


The scientific name gravis means “heavy” (or great in weight), which, I believe, is also not a relative term, as in it doesn’t mean heaviest shearwater.


Besides being more accurate, Great Shearwater is a slightly shorter and “easier” name than Greater Shearwater (try saying it out loud).


As an added bonus, it doesn’t require any changes to four-letter banding codes and will remain as GRSH.


Steve Howell, August 2010




Comments from Remsen: “NO, just to make a point concerning one of the minor points presented in favor of “Great”.  Howell is wrong on the supposed requirement that if there is one “Greater”, then there should be one “Lesser” (and there being no “Lesser Shearwater”, “Greater Shearwater” is incorrect).  “Greater” can refer to more than one, unspecified shearwater species that are lesser in size than Greater, which was likely the original intent of whoever started calling it Greater, in that it was indeed larger than Manx and Audubon’s, the other two Atlantic shearwaters that are also dark above and pale below.  “Greater Ani” does not need to be changed because there is no Lesser Ani; implicit in the name is that there are one or more smaller species.  Ditto Greater Scythebill, Greater Thornbird, Greater Flowerpiercer, etc.  Of course the perfect usage is when there are two species (scaup, prairie-chickens, rheas, yellowlegs, yellow-headed vultures, wagtail-tyrants, etc.), but this is not a requirement.


“Further, “Great” Shearwater is most certainly not “great” in the absolute sense, and that’s why I favor retaining the less pretentious “Greater”.  It’s not even the biggest shearwater in the Atlantic (Cory’s is).  Typically, “Great” is used for truly “great” species in terms of a notch above most other species in the group, such as Great Egret, Great Antshrike, Great Horned Owl, Great Gray Owl, Great Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Great Black Hawk, Great Jacamar, Great Rufous Woodcreeper, Great Xenops, Great Spinetail, Great Elaenia, Great Thrush, etc.  Then there are the cases of Great Kiskadee and Lesser Kiskadee, and Great Pampa-Finch and Lesser Pampa-Finch, in which the name technically should be changed to “Greater”.  However, for the sake of stability, I don’t see the point in changing these names for the sake of minor pedantic points.”