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Cepphus columba - Pigeon guillemot

Pigeon guillemot image

Geographic range:

Alaska to California, Bering Sea and both Kuril and Aleutian Islands

Key features:

Pigeon-sized sea bird. Bright red legs and feet and same bright red lining in the mouth.


bay (rocky shore), exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore

Primary common name:

Pigeon guillemot

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

Pigeon Guillemots breed on rocky shores, cliffs and islands across the north Pacific from the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia and northern Russia to coasts in western North America, from Alaska to California, as far south as San Luis Obispo County. In Monterey they may be found in Monterey harbor and along the water front of Cannery Row, nesting on old pilings, under wharves and old buildings.


bay (rocky shore), exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore


Relative abundance:

Common summer resident in nearshore waters but rare in winter.

Species Description

General description:

Pigeon Guillemots are Alcids and close cousins to Auklets, Murres, Murrelets, and Puffins, but have an adaptation that is different from their relatives. Pigeon Guilletmots have the most dramatic seasonal change in appearance, spending the winter months nearly completely white to mottled white, and the summer breeding season predominantly a dark blackish brown, with an iridescent sheen in early summer. The only things that stays the same throughout the seasons is the brilliant red coloring of the legs, webbed feet, and mouth lining. As their name implies, they are pigeon-sized, about 12 to 14 in (30-35 cm) in length and are able to walk well on land. Their beak is thin, black, and dagger-shaped, approximately 1.5 in (4 cm) long. In breeding months the body is sooty black with a conspicuous white wedge-shaped patch on the upperwing that is broken by a black bar. Their wings are rounded compared with other auks and are used for propulsion and maneuvering underwater.

In non-breeding months the plumage of the upper body is grayish and narrowly banded in white, giving a mottled appearance. The underparts become white with some barring and striations along the rear. Their wings stay a sooty black, but the white patch is smaller. The head becomes almost all white except for a dusky brown crown, nape, neck, and streak through the eye. The sexes are similar and the immatures are like the adult with their wing patch being mottled. Juveniles have gray-orange legs and brown barring on most body feathers. They resemble adults but have a less extensive, more mottled white upperwing patch.

Distinctive features:

The Pigeon Guillemot is a pigeon sized seabird, chunky and round-winged. It is mostly dark blackish-brown when present (spring and summer months) with a white wing patch slashed by a black bar. It has bright red legs and feet and the same bright red lining in the mouth. It is found close to rocky shores and is very vocal with high whistles and screams.


Length: 30-35 cm (11.8-13.8 in) Wingspan: 58.4 cm (23 in) Weight: 450-550 gm (0.99-1.2 lb)

Natural History

General natural history:

Pigeon Guillemots have the ability to excrete excess salt they accumulate from drinking seawater and having a high salt diet. Their blood stream transports the salt to a pair of glands in their forehead where it is concentrated and passed through ducts to the nasal cavity and then to the nostrils, dripping from the tip of the beak. These salt glands are found in many sea birds but function only in those that regularly ingest large amounts of salt.

Piegeon Guillemots are the least social of all the Alcids. They are pelagic, only coming ashore to breed. Pairs may be solitary at a nesting site or may be found in small colonies of up to 50 pairs. They are monogamous and at breeding season they gather in groups on the water and rocks to establish or re-establish pair bonds. Part of their courtship involves gathering on the water near nesting sites to do a water dance in which they vocalize and show off the red linings of their mouth. Pairs form lines on the water and then suddenly break up and the entire line dives and chases after each other under water.

Their nest sites may be isolated and unique and may be either onshore or offshore and include sites such as under logs, in rock crevices or holes, under bridges, in tree roots, in abandoned puffin burrows, pilings, and waterfront structures, such as wharves, bridges, navigation aids, walls of disused buildings, and old tires, pipes, boxes, and beached ship hulls, all usually within 30 m of high water mark. Open sites have a high failure rate. Males will occupy and defend nest sites two weeks prior to the females arriving and there is a high rate of nest fidelity from year-to-year.

Eggs are greenish, bluish-white, marked with brown, 2.4 in (61mm) and are laid in early May into June. Environmental variables make yearly laying dates vary. Availablity of preferred fish species is thought to be an important determinant of laying date. Most eggs laid as late as July are replacement clutches, which will be initiated 13 to 18 days following egg loss.

Usually two eggs are laid. The first egg is laid and sometimes not incubated until the second egg is laid 3-5 days later. Thus the eggs will hatch simultaneously and competition between the two chicks will be minimized. Otherwise the first egg usually hatches 1-2 days earlier than the secong laid egg. Incubation lasts from 30-32 days with both parents participating with alternating shifts ranging in length from 40 minutes to 17 hours.

The hatchlings are semiprecocial, nidicolous (stay in the nest for some time), with eyes open, mouth and legs flesh pink, covered with blackish-brown down, and are able to swim and dive and find some food. They are brooded continuously for 3 days and at intervals until 5-7 days, when the chicks’ thermoregulatory capabilites are well developed. The chicks make nasal, rasping, cheep-cheeps when hungry. They are fed for 29-39 days with both parents feeding in shifts lasting from 4-8 hours. Chicks ingest whole, small fish, head first, that parents offer from day one. A spiny fish that is too long can kill the chick by choking. As the chick develops the parents often drop fish into the nest cavity or at the entrance to their cavity. Chicks are fed throughout the day, but most frequently in the morning. Chicks will consume between 1 and 2 fish per hour. Chicks begin to molt into juvenile plumage at 12 days of age. By day 25 the entire body is feathered with 50% of the down persisting on the upper parts.

The chicks fledge in 29 to 39 days, generally leaving the nest at night or late evening, independent of parents. They scramble or fly down to the water and begin swimming, diving and preening. Sibling aggression has not been noted. Their life span in the wild is 20 years or more.

Migration varies geographically. Alaskan Pigeon Guillemots are thought to move just slightly south to or just beyond the ice edge in the winter. There is no evidence that guillemots migrate at all in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. In contrast, band returns show that birds from the Farallon Islands, CA, migrate north after breeding, some as far as British Columbia. One could assume that this would also be true for guillemots in the MBNMS area. They fly with rapid wing beats, usually within 3 m of the surface of the sea. Their webbed feet are outstretched and used as rudders when turning. Their flight speed is thought to be 77 km/h (48 m/h). When predators approach adults give an alarm scream and congregate on the water, bill-dipping frequently.

Pigeon Guillemots are also unique among the Alcids, having the widest range of vocal calls and behaviors. They call frequently near their breeding areas with extremely high-pitched, thin, squeaky or piping whistles or a drawn-out screaming whistle lasting up to 2 seconds. Their vocalizations include hunch-whistles, a whistle given as the head is thrown backwards with the bill open nad the wings held partially open (which males give when in the nest cavity during courtship or as an alarm); high squeaky or piping whistles; trills and alarm screams. They vocalize to pair bond, establish dominance, or indicate danger. At the Farallon Islands vocalizations are most intense during pair formation from March to May and during July when prospecting nonbreeders arrive at the breeding colonies. In April and May, when territories are being established, early morning is when vocal behavior is most intense. By midday most of the birds are off shore. Vocalizations resume after 1800 when they return ashore to tend their territories and roosts. June is the period of least vocalization while incubation is in progress.


Glaucous-winged Gull, Northwestern Crow, stoats, raccoons, and garter snakes feed on eggs and chicks. Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Great Horned Owl, killer whale, and giant Pacific octopus are known to have occasionally taken adults.


Knowledge regarding the prey of the Pigeon Guillemot comes from studies in Alaska from stomach contents. Both vertebrates and invertebrates were found. The vertebrates included Pacific Sandfish (Trichodon trichodon), Capelin (Mallotus villosus), Cods (Gadidae), Sculpins (Myoxocephalus sp.), Gunnels (Pholidae, Pholis laeta), Pricklebacks (Stichaeidae, Lumpenus sagitta), and some Flounders (Pleuronectidae). Invertebrates included red rock crab (Cancer oregonensis), shrimps (Crangon spp., Pandalus spp., and (Heptacarpus spp.,), polychaetes, gastropods (Lacuna vincta), and a bivalve mollusk (Musculus sp.). In Oregon and British Columbia, gunnels, pricklebacks, flatfish, shrimps, crabs and Pacific Herring eggs are taken in the winter. Specific information on prey species in the MBNMS is not available.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Pigeon Guillemots dive for their prey. They are able to dive to about 46 m (150 ft) using their wings to “fly” under water. Dive times range from 10 to 144 seconds. Using their feet and wings to manuever they probe among rocky substrates with their bills. They do not fly out to sea to feed during the breeding season as do most other Alcids, but usually go no more than 7 km (4 mi) from their nesting areas to search for their prey in benthic habitats. They also feed in the water column. Chicks are fed least in the middle of the day. In areas with a large tidal range feeding activity is most intense around low tide. Small prey items are usually ingested while still underwater. Larger crustaceans and fish are brought to the surface where piracy by gulls can occur. The guillemot will dive with its prey to avoid the gulls.

March - September


In California’s Farallon Islands males are seen offshore for a week or two in early March and by the later part of March they are ashore. They will occupy and defend nest sites two weeks prior the the females arriving. First eggs are laid in early May and laying can continue into June. Environmental variables make yearly laying dates vary. Availablity of preferred fish species is thought to be an important determinant of laying date. Most eggs laid as late as July are replacement clutches, wich will be initiated 13 to 18 days following egg loss.

Listing Status:

Oil spills, human disturbances at nesting sites, non-native mammalian predators, and in-shore gill net fisheries are the main threats to Pigeon Guillemots. Widespread distribution along coastlines decreases the vulnerability at the population level to the above mentioned disturbances. The IUCN lists the Pigeon Guillemot as a specis of Least Concern. Numbers were reduced by oil pollution and disturbance from humans and livestock in the early 1900’s. The estimated population is about 235,000, with the largest breeding concentrations on the Farallon Islands of California and in the Chukot Peninula of eatern Russia. There are approximately 2,200 birds as each location. Although they are locally vulnerable to the threats of oil pollution, gill netting, and mammalian predators, their widespread distribution along coastlines decreases vulnerability at the population level. At this time the population is considered stable.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Ehrlich, P., D.S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The Birders Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York. 785 p.
Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds 2nd edition. Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, Carmel, CA. 536 p.
Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Bird. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 545 p.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

Guillemot Research Group

Zipcodezoo. The Bay Science Foundation 2009