Common Murre

Dick Daniels

Scientific Name
Uria aalge californica

In July, 2011, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service discovered that California common murre chicks had hatched for the first time since 1912 on the Channel Islands. This new nesting colony was spotted perched on the 100-foot-high sea cliffs of Prince Island-a small islet off San Miguel Island within Channel Islands National Park. Historically, common murres nested on Prince Island, but this colony disappeared nearly a century ago, likely a result of human disturbance and egg harvesting.

Since it has been so long since the last nesting was observed here, scientists surmised that recent ocean conditions could be the reason for the re-establishment of this seabird colony. With this murre colony, Prince Island now hosts 13 nesting seabirds, making it one of the most important and biologically diverse nesting habitats on the West Coast of North America.

Please visit Common Murre Press Release for more information on this discovery of nesting common murres.

Quick and Cool Facts

  • The common murre's breeding range on the Pacific Coast is from Alaska south to the Channel Islands National Park in Southern California.
  • Common murres are silent at sea, but in flight make a soft murrr sound.
  • If you see a string of black and white birds flying swiftly across the surface of the water, chances are you're seeing a "bazaar" or "fragrance" of common murres.
  • Courtship displays including bowing, billing and preening. The male points its head vertically and makes croaking and growling noises to attract the females.
  • The eggs vary in color and pattern to help the parents recognize them, each egg is unique.
  • Common murres can fly 125 miles from the nest to find food for their chicks.
  • Common murres will dive to almost 250 feet in pursuit of schools of small fish.
  • When the chick is ready to fledge, the male swims below the cliff and calls out to it. The chick then hurls itself off the cliff edge and drops 800 to 1,000 feet into the ocean where it swims out to its father.
  • The male stays with the chick and cares for it and feeds it until it is able to fly when it is 39-46 days old.

Common murres are football-sized seabirds with the tuxedo colors of penguins. They are about 15 to 18 inches long, with short necks and long, straight bills. The body is black above and white below with distinct summer and winter plumages. In the summer, the head and neck are black with grayish-brown wash on the crown. In the winter, the throat, cheeks and fore-neck are white, with a black line down the cheeks. The neck is short and the bill is fairly long, slender, and black. The feet are blackish. The trailing edge of the secondaries is white.

During the breeding season, the common murre is found along the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts. On the Pacific Coast, it is found from Alaska south to California as far as the northern limit of the Channel Islands off Southern California. On the Atlantic Coast, it is found from Labrador, Canada south to New Brunswick, Canada. It winters at sea from Newfoundland, Canada south to Massachusetts on the Atlantic Coast, and from Alaska to southern California on the Pacific Coast. It is also found in Greenland and northern Europe and Asia.

Common murres favor cool ocean waters, both near and far from shore. During the breeding season they are found closer to rocky shorelines. They nest on coasts and on islands alike, provided there are cliff ledges or flat bare rocks atop sea stacks, which are steep rock formations near the coast. San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands National Park is a prime example of a breeding area that is attractive for the breeding common murre colony. Common murres are to be found after breeding season on the open ocean or in large bays.

Common murres feed entirely by pursuit-diving, and are capable of diving to depths of more than 240 feet in search of prey such as fish during breeding, and more krill and squid during winter and pre-breeding periods. Common prey species include northern anchovy, rockfish, Pacific herring, Pacific whiting and market squid. To dive, they partly extend their wings and propel themselves underwater, then snatch and carry a single fish lengthwise in their mouth, with the head of the fish held in the mouth cavity.

Common murres first breed at 4 to 5 years of age. Pairs exhibit a high degree of site and mate fidelity. Upon arrival at nest sites, they participate in courtship displays. They do not build nests. The female lays a single egg each year. Common murre eggs are pointed at one end; when pushed, they roll around in a circle, preventing them from rolling off the nesting ledge. The variation in egg color and markings allows parent murres to recognize their own eggs when they return from sea. As many as 20 pairs may incubate in one square meter. Incubation lasts about 5 weeks; both sexes incubate and feed the newly hatched chick. Often, to prevent young chicks from jumping off the ledge prematurely, adults stand between the chicks and the cliff edge. When the chick is ready to fledge, the male swims below the cliff and calls out to it. The chick then hurls itself off the cliff edge and drops as much as 800 to 1,000 feet into the ocean where it swims out to its father. On Prince Island, off of San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands National Park, the cliffs are a mere 100 feet high. At the end of the colony chick-rearing period, successful breeding males and their partly-grown chicks depart the colony. During the at-sea chick-rearing period, chicks are fed at sea until independence. Other adults (i.e., females, failed breeders, and sub-adults) also cease colony attendance once male-chick pairs have departed. The first successful chick hatching since 1912 in the Channel Island National Park was observed on July 28, 2011, on Prince Island, and islet of San Miguel Island, the northernmost island in the park.

In California, common murres are largely resident year-round near breeding colonies, but some birds disperse to southern California in winter. Insufficient evidence is available to determine whether murres from Alaskan colonies winter in the area from southern British Columbia to California, although some Alaskan murres (especially from the Forrester Island colony) are present in northern British Columbia in summer and winter.

Conservation Status
A new colony of common murres is situated within Channel Islands National Park, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, and the recently designated Harris Point California Marine Protected Area. Seabird biologists will continue to evaluate the future of the common murre colony at Prince Island. Partners in this monitoring effort included the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and the California Institute for Environmental Studies.

Common murres are the most frequent avian victims of oil spills on the Pacific coast because of their low reproductive rate and concentrations in major shipping channels. However, murres have suffered major kills on every North American coast during past half century. In the 1988 Nestucca spill, about 30,000 murres were killed off the Washington and British Columbia coasts; in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska killed many more. Other threats to common murres include over-fishing, gill-netting, and marine climate change. An estimated 70,000 murres were killed in gill nets in California before restrictions were imposed in 1987. Gill-netting continues today in Puget Sound.

Pacific coast common murres experienced further heavy declines after the 1983 El Niño event, which caused warmer, less productive ocean environments. Their recovery is complicated by eagle predation and disturbance. Common Murres are highly sensitive to disturbance by humans on foot, in boats, or in planes. Washington colonies are disturbed by low-flying aircraft, especially near military bases. Hastening to fly clear of disturbances, murres knock eggs and chicks out of the nest. Unguarded chicks and eggs are easy prey for gulls and other predators.

Additional Information

Last updated: June 25, 2016

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