About Marbled Murrelets

About Marbled Murrelets

Marbled Murrelets are shy, robin-sized seabirds that live along the Pacific Coast, from Alaska to California. They are members of the alcid, or auk, family of surface-diving seabirds, which includes Pigeon Guillemots, Tufted Puffins, Common Murres, Rhinoceros Auklets, and several other species.

 

Murrelets spend 95% of their lives at sea, usually within a few miles of shore. They use their strong wings to “fly” under water in pursuit of their prey—small fish referred to as “forage fish.” Airborne, murrelets are fast—routinely reaching 50 m.p.h. as they fly between the ocean and the forest.

Unlike other alcids, Marbled Murrelets nest in the mature coniferous forests within 50 miles from marine waters. With few exceptions, murrelets nest in mature or old-growth trees (trees that are at least 80 years old) such as Douglas-fir, Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, and Coast Redwoods. It is in such trees that murrelets find their preferred nesting site—a wide, mossy branch at least 50 feet above the ground.

During the breeding season (March to September in Washington), murrelets are active in the low light of dawn and dusk. They are well camouflaged in the forest in their brown breeding plumage and they are secretive on their nest. Due to these unusual behaviors, the murrelet’s nesting habits were not known until 1974. In August of that year, a tree trimmer accidentally discovered a downy Murrelet chick on a wide, mossy branch 148 feet up an old-growth Douglas-fir in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

That discovery eventually lead scientists to conclude that Marbled Murrelets depended on old-growth and mature coastal forests for nesting and that historic and ongoing logging of these forests was the primary cause of the dramatic population declines of this species.

In 1988, the Audubon Society of Portland sent a petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Marbled Murrelet as a federally threatened species.

In 1992, the federal government listed the Marbled Murrelet as a “threatened” species in Washington, Oregon, and California under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In 1993, it was state-listed as a threatened species in Washington.

Despite these protections, the Murrelet’s population is still declining. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2016 Status Review, the population of marbled murrelets in Washington have declined 44 percent between 2001 and 2015.

The loss, fragmentation and degradation of the murrelet’s remaining nesting habitat is the largest contributor to the ongoing population declines throughout its range.  The murrelet’s survival is also threatened nest predation by corvids (mostly crows and jays), gill-net fishing, chronic oil pollution, oil spills, and depletion through commercial fishing of the small forage fish it preys on.