Bird Lore: Ancient Murrelet

The Ancient Murrelet is an alcid, which means it is a diving seabird. It can be found in Washington’s coastal and inland marine waters from October through March. Typically, it is seen in Edmonds from October through January, but most commonly in fall months. It flies low along the water and then disappears when it dives. Usually two or more birds are seen flying together. Every so often they will be seen along the Edmonds pier or other parts of the waterfront.

The North Pacific is the home of the Ancient Murrelet. It breeds from Northern British Columbia to the north and it winters as far south as Southern California. Nature writer Pete Dunne calls this bird the wandering murrelet because, unlike other alcids, it has been found on many inland lakes and rivers and as far away as England. This occurs when it is blown off course by storms.

Diet is made up of fish and crustaceans. Shrimp, mainly those about one inch in length, appear to be the Ancient Murrelet’s primary food for much of the year. It also eats small fish such as sand lance, capelin, herring, and smelt. It forages while swimming under water, catching most of its prey within about 60 feet of the surface.

The Ancient Murrelet breeds in colonies on islands. Its courtship behavior is unusual among seabirds. The male will sing repeated chirps at night from a tree branch or other high perch at a nesting colony. The nest is a ground burrow, located under a tree or in the grass, usually on a slope close to the sea. Most alcids lay a single egg, but the Ancient Murrelet lays two. Both adults alternate shifts to incubate the eggs. A shift is usually three days but can be as long as six. Incubation lasts for 29-37 days.

One to three days after hatching, the parents come to the burrow at night and call to the young who scramble down to the sea, often descending over a thousand feet through dense vegetation. Once on the sea, the young birds recognize their parents voices, reunite with them, and swim away from the colony. The adult birds then feed their young at sea for a minimum of four weeks.

The oldest Ancient Murrelet of record was at least five when it was recaptured during an Alaska banding operation. Birding author Kenn Kaufman relates that this murrelet’s name “Ancient” is based on its gray back. Whomever gave the species its common name thought that the gray back resembled a shawl draped over an old person’s shoulders. That seems a bit of a stretch but it is a distinctive and alluring name. Collective nouns for groups of Ancient Murrelets and all the other species in the alcid family include colony, loomery, and raft.

Conservation status of the Ancient Murrelet is that of least concern. The most significant impact on its breeding colonies is the introduction of mammals such as foxes and raccoons. Colonies have been known to recover rapidly following eradication of these mammals. Repeated recolonization by raccoons in British Columbia remains a pressing conservation problem for the species.

You can hear the chirrup calls of an Ancient Murrelet here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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