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Uria aalge - Common Murre

Common Murre image

Geographic range:

Alaska to Big Sur, California

Key features:

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.

Habitat(s):

bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), exposed rocky shore, protected rocky shore
 

Primary common name:

Common Murre

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:

176974
 

Geographic Range

Range Description:

Uria aalge is a coastal resident during the breeding season on the Pacific coast from Alaska southward to the Big Sur Coast, California and on the Atlantic coast from Labrador southward to New Brunswick. It also has breeding colonies in Greenland and along northern coasts of Europe and Asia. Uria aalge winters at sea off the Pacific coast from Alaska to southern California and occasionally farther southward and on the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland south to Massachusetts. It also winters at sea off Northern Europe and Asia.

Habitats

bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), exposed rocky shore, protected rocky shore

Habitat notes:

During the breeding season, Uria aalge occupies islands, rocky shores, cliffs and sea stacks. Typically, they are found closer to rocky shorelines during the breeding season and farther offshore during the non-breeding season. They are occasionally found in large bays or harbors. Outside of the breeding season, Uria aalge is almost always seen in the water.

Abundance

Relative abundance:

Uria aalge is numerous off both the East and West Coasts of North America.

Species Description

General description:

Uria aalge is an abundant, penguin-like bird of the cooler northern oceans and is a member of the Auk family, Alcidae in the order Charadriiformes. Family Alcidae is shared by Auks, Murres and Puffins all of which are great swimmers and divers, but clumsy on land. Auks can fly, but because they have short wings, they must flap their wings very fast in order to fly.

Distinctive features:

Uria aalge is a relatively large auk. 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. In the Atlantic, some populations include bridled or ringed individuals, which have a white eye-ring and a white line extending backward from the eyes. These bridled birds are more common farther north. Most juveniles have a shorter bill and molting birds, in the early fall, are more difficult to identify. Immature birds are similar to nonbreeding adults.

Uria aalge is very similar to the Thick-billed Murre, Uria lomvia, but can be distinguished by its thinner and longer bill, its white facial stripe and paler upperparts. In breeding plumage the white of the breast meets the dark throat in a straight line or shallow inverted U in Uria aalge, but in a sharp inverted V in Uria lomvia. Chicks at sea accompanying an adult can also be mistaken for Xantus’s Murrelets, Synthliboramphus hypoleucus. The Razorbill, Alca torda, looks very similar to Uria aalge from a distance, but is more robust, has a deeper and blunter bill and has a longer tail which it often holds up into the air.

Size:

Uria aalge can grow to a length of 45 cm with a wingspan of 71 cm and a weight of 1125 g.

Natural History

General natural history:

Uria aalge nests in large colonies. When they are away from colonies they can be found swimming in large numbers nearshore or offshore. On land they sit upright, their walking is awkward, and their flight can be labored. However, at sea they swim and dive well and can dive to depths of greater than 50 m below the surface. The voice of Uria aalge is a purring murrrr, low croak, or high bleat, but is only used at colonies.

Historically Uria aalge have been taken by humans for their meat and eggs. Because of their colonial nesting practices they were considered easy targets. This is no longer allowed, and populations have made excellent recoveries. However, numbers of Uria aalge fluctuate annually due to other threats. The warm waters of the 1983 El Nino caused a scarcity of forage fish resulting in a population crash. Oil spills and gillnets have both been responsible for drowning this bird in great numbers. These birds are also highly sensitive to disturbance by humans and when disturbed they may knock the eggs and chicks out of the nest sites in their rush to fly away. Overall Pacific populations of Uria aalge have declined and partially recovered, while Atlantic populations appear to be increasing.

Predator(s):

Several species of birds and terrestrial mammals may attack adults, juveniles, or eggs at nesting sites. Chicks have definitely been known to fall prey to gulls and other avian predators. Confirmed aquatic predators on Uria aalge are Grey Seals, Halichoerus grypus in the Western Atlantic and California Sea Lions, Zalophus californianus in the Pacific.

Prey:

Uria aalge mainly feeds on small schooling fish, but also on squid, marine worms and some crustaceans.

Feeding behavior

Carnivore

Feeding behavior notes:

Uria aalge dives underwater to capture prey, using its wings to swim.

January - December

Migration:

Uria aalge is a permanent resident in many areas, but far-northern populations migrate south when the water freezes in the winter and will return in the summer when the temperatures rise.

June - August

Reproduction:

Uria aalge nests in dense colonies typically on wide, open ledges on rocky cliffs. Relative to their size, these birds have the most densely packed nesting colonies of any bird, with as many as 28 – 34 individuals per square meter. The nests are simply a shallow depression in rocky ledge on a steep cliff since they do not actually build a nest.

Uria aalge first breeds at 4 – 5 years of age and the females lay a single egg each year. The egg is very pointed at one end and this shape likely keeps the egg from rolling off its nesting shelf. The egg is variably colored and this may allow parents to recognize their own egg when they return to the crowded colony. Incubation lasts 4 – 5 weeks and both sexes take part in incubating and feeding the newly hatched chick. Two or three weeks after hatching the chick leaves the colony with one of its parents, usually its father, and moves into the water.
  • Common Murre Restoration Project

    The Common Murre Restoration Project is a cooperative effort involving U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations. The primary goal of this project is to restore the Common Murre colony at Devil's Slide Rock as well as enhancing populations of other central California murre and seabird colonies by identifying and reducing threats. [View Project]

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.
Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Dunn, J.L. 1999. Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 464 p.
Long, D.J. and L. Gilbert. 1996. California Sea Lion predation on chicks of the Common Murre. Journal of Field Ornithology 68(1): 152-154.
Stallcup, R. 1990. Ocean Birds of the Nearshore Pacific. Point Reyes Bird Observatory, Stinson Beach, CA. 214 p.
WWW
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds
http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/search
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WWW
Seattle Audubon Society.
http://www.seattleaudubon.org/birdweb/
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant
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