Uria aalge

DescriptionCommon Murres are seen on a whale watching boat tour with Eagle Wing Tours in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada on Vancouver Island.

  • approximate size is 43 cm (17 in), like a crow
  • head and upper parts brownish black, white below; long pointed bill
  • winter birds have extensive white on the face, with a dark line behind the eye
  • 1 blue-green egg, with black marks, on a bare rock ledge
  • like all alcids, they use their wings for swimming and diving, and seem to fly through the water
  • when half grown, young murres jump 9 to 15 meters (30 to 50 feet)  into the sea
  • a seabird that can dive twice the length of a football field 200m (600 feet) straight down below the surface of the sea
  • travels up to 6000 km a year in migration, covering up to 1000 km of that distance by swimming
  • leaps from cliffs up to 500 m high with half-grown wings at three weeks of age
  • can live up to 25 years of age

Habitat

Rocky coasts.

Nesting

One blue-green egg, with black marks, on a bare rock ledge.

Range

Breeds along Arctic and sub-arctic coasts, south to central California and Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Winters south to southern California and Massachusetts. They’re also found in Eurasia.

Voice

Purring or murmuring, hence the name “murre.” Also a guttural croak and higher-pitched bleat.

Discussion

The murres, like all alcids, use their wings for swimming and diving, and seem to fly through the water. This species is more abundant on the Pacific Coast of the United States than on the Atlantic, where it is outnumbered by the thick-billed murre. In the Arctic, however, it nests in huge colonies, with incubating birds standing side by side on long narrow ledges. When half grown, young murres jump 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 m) into the sea, and accompany their parents, first swimming, then flying, often for hundreds of miles to their wintering areas. Apart from having their nests plundered for the eggs, murres of the Pacific Coast have long been safe from human intrusion, but oil spills now pose a threat to whole colonies. Can you imagine a seabird that can dive almost the length of a football field straight down below the surface of the sea; travels up to 6000 km a year in migration, covering up to 1000 km of that distance by swimming; leaps from cliffs up to 500 metres high with half-grown wings at three weeks of age; and can live up to 25 years of age? This extraordinary bird is a murre. Approximately 4,100 pairs of birds breed at Triangle Island’s colony.

Murres are not very good fliers. Because their wings are smaller than those of any other flying bird of their size, murres have to flap very fast to take off, taxiing across the surface of the water and often bouncing off the tops of waves before getting airborne. They are fast fliers, once airborne, travelling at about 75 km/h. To support all this flapping, murres have very large breast muscles, which contribute a quarter of their body weight of about two pounds (1 kg), making them meaty birds for the dining table. Murres have been recovered drowned in fishing nets set as deep as 180 m, and dives of 100 m appear to be common. It is difficult to think of a bird diving to such depths where the pressure is so great and to imagine how it finds its food in the darkness there. Their single eggs are laid mostly from mid June to mid July directly on bare rocks or soil on cliff ledges. Common murres reach breeding age 5–7 years. An egg may be dislodged from a narrow ledge, especially if birds are disturbed and fly off in panic. When an egg is lost, a second may be laid after about two weeks. Occasionally, if two eggs are lost in quick succession, a third may be laid, but this is the most the female is able to produce in one season. A chick hatched from a late egg may not have time to grow to fledging before the short summer ends. To keep the egg warm, the bird tucks it under its feathers against the bare skin of the “brood patch” on the lower belly.