Murre Seabird Chicks Hatch on California’s Channel Islands, First Time in 100 Years

Murre seabirds have reestablished a breeding ground on the Channel Islands for the first time since 1912.

It’s a big deal, says USGS seabird ecologist Josh Adams, because these are birds of habit who tend to nest in the same places. “You don’t see natural recolonization events in seabird populations that often,” he says.

This photo shows evidence of nesting and chick-feeding in a California common murre colony on Prince Island off San Miguel Island off Southern California. The left red circle highlights an adult murre holding a fish in its bill. The center circle highlights a murre egg fragment, with the yellowish interior of the eggshell visible. The right circle highlights another adult murre also holding a fish, possibly attempting to feed the prey to a chick. Photo courtesy of USGS.
This photo shows evidence of nesting and chick-feeding in a California common murre colony on Prince Island off San Miguel Island off Southern California. The left red circle highlights an adult murre holding a fish in its bill. The center circle highlights a murre egg fragment, with the yellowish interior of the eggshell visible. The right circle highlights another adult murre also holding a fish, possibly attempting to feed the prey to a chick. Photo courtesy of USGS.

The California Common Murre – pronounced “mur” after the sound they make – suffered declines along the California Coast in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s because their distinctive turquoise eggs were prized by egg hunters.  Adams says their fortunes continued to decline because they spend 95-99% of their life swimming on the surface of the water and are particularly susceptible to oil pollution and gillnet fishing.

It was 1991 when scientists first observed a Murre on the Channel Islands, though it only briefly touched down. “Then in about 2004 there started to be occurrences of more than one, a few, a dozen standing on the rocks.  And then by this year we noticed a significant number of them starting to stand there and hold territories.”

Finally this summer Adams was there with colleagues and they saw about 125 of them on a rock cliff about 100 feet up.  The researchers documented about half of them incubating eggs.

Adams credits conservation work, like that done just south of San Francisco at Devils Slide, for helping create the right climate for recolonization along the California Coast.  The murres habitat stretches from Korea down to Southern California.

Murres look similar to penguins, both in their black and white coloring and in the shape of their bodies.  They largely just come on land to breed in the summer so they’re particularly suited to the water.

Adams says now is a particularly good time to see and hear the murre families off the coast of California.

“They’re raised by pairs on the rocks and then when the chicks are ready, the dads call for them from the water below and the chicks jump off the cliff before they’re able to fly and they make their way to the dad.  So you can go out to Monterey Bay and hear the dads and kids vocalizing to each other.”

The scientists work on this at the USGS website.

Hear Adams talk about how the murre recolonized the Channel Islands :http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/08/Murres-slow-return.mp3|titles=Murres-slow-return

The significance of having the murre back on the Channel Islands:

:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/08/Back-to-Channel-islands.mp3|titles=Back-to-Channel-islands

More about fascinating murre family dynamics, including where the moms are this time of year:

:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/08/Seabird-family-dynamics.mp3|titles=Seabird-family-dynamics

  • Marta

    Hooray for happy environmental news! You can often view a huge rock-full of murres from the Point Reyes lighthouse. Glad they’re spreading their wings to other sites.

  • http://www.alexandragnoske.com Alexandra Gnoske

    This is amazing news. Is it this Murre, or another, that was listed as endangered?

  • Hank G

    Very uplifting story! Nice to read about something like this these days.

Author

Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked as a reporter, editor and producer in public radio for the last twelve years. She got her start in New York City at WNYC and went on to work with the national business program Marketplace, WBUR’s “On Point” and KQED News in San Francisco. Her work has been honored by the LA Press Club and the SF-Peninsula Press Club.

Rachel has a BA with honors in anthropology from Rice University and did graduate work at NYU.

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