Great Skua - Hebridean Birds

Western Isles Birds - Great Skuas - very powerful majestic seabirds - in and around The Western Isles.

In poor light you could mistake them for large gulls, but at close range there really is no mistaking them.

The Great Skua is the largest Skua in the Northern Hemisphere, 60% of the world population breeding in Scotland, The Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney

Great Skua - Near - Shiants -  Western Isles Bird Sightings
Bird Overview - Great Skua
Great Skuas
Latin name
Stercorarius skua or
Catharacta skua


Similar Species
Pomarine Skua
Long Tailed Skuas
Arctic Skua
Great Skuas are usually a uniform dark brown with contrasting white flashes in the outer part of both the upper and under wing (white base to the primaries).

In adults they can be streaked with greyish brown, with a black cap. and can look quite shaggy.

Juveniles show a darker head and russet underparts, and the white wing flashes may not be as well developed as on adults.

The great Skuas is the largest skua in the Northern Hemisphere, breeding each summer in northern Scotland, Iceland, and the Faeroe Islands. 60% of the global population breed in Scottish colonies.

Outside the breeding season they are usually solitary, though will congregate if there is food..


Great skuas (or 'bonxies', a Shetland word meaning dumpy, untidy women) are majestic and powerful seabirds that never fail to provoke a reaction. At sea, they can often be seen harassing gannets or gulls to make them drop their their food, or following fishing boats to scavenge their discards. They also hunt other birds


From May to September each year, bonxies breed in colonies on coastal moorland.

On Handa, nearly 300 pairs of monogamous bonxies hold back-to-back territories among the heather, each territory measuring between 20m and 100 m across.

They start breeding at around 5 years old and can rear 1 or 2 chicks each year until they are over 20, probably in the same colony. Generally the older, more experienced parents have the bigger territories.


Breeding bonxies are relentless and ferocious in defence of their territory against human (or any other) intruders, especially when the chicks are young


The size of a Herring Gull, they are the largest of the northern Skuas, and are heavily built with broad wings, bulky body, stout head and powerful bill.

Length: 53-66cm Wingspan: 1.3m Weight: 1.3-1.5kg Average Life span: 15 years

In breeding areas on coastal rocky islands and moorland; at other times seen around coasts, often in the neighbourhood of seabird colonies, scavenging from other birds, or picking food from the surface of the sea.

Fish, carrion, other birds, mostly fish, obtained from sea, scavenging or by piracy, occasionally berries, or even the odd rabbit so it is said. The great skuas gather in flocks of about 40 or more over shoaling fish.

Outside of breeding season, generally, silent, The Brown Skua's call is a harsh hah-hah-hah-hah; quacking and croaking noises, more harsh during dive attacks., the attack call being more of a strangled "kayaya" at high intensity a high pitched raucous scream.


Over 9000 pairs breed in Britain, mainly in The Western Isles and Shetland and Orkney.

Their grass lined nests are made on flat ground with some vegetation cover. the territory is taken up within a few days of arrival and is defended by one or other of the pale, whichever has been the first to arrive. When the pair do have young they will "dive attack"anything from other birds, to even humans.

The great skuas have only one brood, the eggs are oval, smooth, not glossy, chestnut brown, olive grey or pale blue, usually spotted dark brown, mainly around the broad end,. The clutch is usually just one or two birds and the incubation is 29 days. The birds fledge at around 44 days

Misc. Info

The Shetland name for the great skuas - Bonxie, may have been derived from a old Norse word (bunki=dumpy) referring to its heavy-set build.

The name does sum up the great skuas habit of viciously dive-bombing anyone unwary enough to approach to close to its nest

The Great Skuas are often called "Pirates of the High Seas".

The Great Skuas are accomplished food-pirates, predators and scavengers. One of their favourite tactics is to steal from birds other birds who have just caught their prey’, returning from fishing trips with a fully laden bills or crops (the food storage area located just above the stomach in some birds), often guillemots and kittiwakes.

The Great skuas also target gannets, which are a much better match for them and more than capable of defending themselves and great fights occur.

The Great Skuas are really only threatened by the larger birds of prey, like the golden eagles and the white tailed sea eagles.

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