Brachyramphus marmoratus

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

Measuring 9.5–10 inches (24–25 cm), the marbled murrelet is a chubby, robin-sized seabird, with a very short neck and tail. In summer, brown above, marbled with light brown and gray below. In winter, black above, white below, with white wing patches and incomplete white collars.

Endangered Status

The subspecies of the marbled murrelet that lives in North America, Brachyramphus marmoratus marmoratus, is on the U.S. Endangered Species List. It is classified as threatened in California, Oregon, and Washington. The main threats to this species have come from the timber industry, which has cut down perhaps 90 percent of the old-growth forests the murrelet nests in. The species currently continues to decline, while timber interests still log the old-growth forests, assuming the birds will simply nest elsewhere. Murrelets belong to a family of birds that maintain a strong fidelity to historical nesting areas; it is not known whether murrelets will move to another area if their particular stand of trees is destroyed. Oregon’s Department of Forestry has proposed a long-term logging plan that calls for culling some but not all trees in old-growth forests; many environmentalists think disturbing the ecosystem in this way could be the end for this species in Oregon.

Habitat

Breeds in coastal rain forests; inshore waters at other times.

Nesting

One olive or yellowish egg, spotted with brown, black, and lavender, in a platform of moss placed high in a forest tree.

Range

Breeds from Aleutians Islands south to central California. A few winter along breeding coasts, but main wintering area unknown. Also in Asia.

Voice

A plaintive keer, keer, keer.

Discussion

The nest of this bird was discovered fairly recently. Most alcids use burrows or ledges on coastal cliffs, but marbled murrelets, burdened with fish, have been observed taking off from the sea at twilight and disappearing inland. Some weeks later feathered young appear, bobbing on the water. The first clues to their nesting habits were found in Siberia in 1963 by an ornithologist who reported a nest in a huge tree. In 1974, a nest was discovered in a Douglas fir in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, about 135 feet (41 meters) above the ground. It is now assumed that these birds nest high up in trees, sometimes several miles from the sea. On the water, marbled murrelets move about in small groups diving for fish and other aquatic animals.