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Common Murre

Known by their distinctive black and white plumage, these birds prefer the northern hemisphere.

Exceptionally abundant along northern coasts of both Atlantic and Pacific North America, the Common Murre is a large alcid with diving abilities allowing it to reach depths of 100 meters. Vulnerable to oil spills and commercial fishing nets, Common Murres have nonetheless thrived in their arctic and subarctic habitats.

With a heavy body in relation to the size of its wings, the Common Murre flaps it wings very quickly in flight to stay aloft, and must have a running start or leap from a cliff to become airborne. Non-breeding individuals tend to roost at the edge of colonies.


Description of the Common Murre


Length: 18 in.  Wingspan: 26 in.

Common Murre

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Seasonal change in appearance



Bent Life History of the Common Murre

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Common Murre – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


As we approached Bird Rock on June 23, 1904, the setting sun shone full upon the tall, red sandstone cliffs, roughly sculptured by the elements into broad shelves, narrow ledges, and deep crevices, which offered lodging room for countless sea fowl, domiciled in their summer homes to rear their young. Most conspicuous, at a distance, were the broad white bands of nesting gannets on the wider ledges; hovering above and about the rock was a restless cloud of snowy kittiwakes, while a steady stream of birds from the varied throng flowed constantly around it. Between the bands of gannets we could see, as we drew near, row upon row of smaller, black birds standing in seried ranks, shoulder to shoulder, on the narrow ledges scattered over the face of the cliff. These were the murres and the Brunnich’s murres standing on or near their eggs in their customary attitude, facing the cliff and with their backs to the sea; the report of a gun brought a sudden change, as they faced about showing their white breasts and began pouring off the rock in hundreds to circle about it in a bewildering maze, or plunging downwards to the sea to settle in the water and watch proceedings.

Bird Rock is now the main stronghold of this and several other species south of the coast of Labrador, where once these seabirds bred in such profusion. The following quotation from Audubon’s (1840) graphic pen xviii give some idea of the abundance of this species there in his time:

Not far from Great Macatina Harbor lie the Murre Rocks, consisting of several low islands, destitute of vegetation, and not rising high from the waters. There thousands of guillemots annually assemble in the beginning of May to deposit each its single egg and raise its young. As you approach these islands the air becomes darkened with the multitudes of birds that fly about; every square foot of the ground seems to be occupied by a guillemot planted erect, as it were, on the granite rock, but carefully warming its cherished egg. All look toward the south, and if you are fronting them, the snowy white of their bodies produces a very remarkable effect, for the birds at some distance look as if they were destitute of bead, so much does that part assimilate with the dark hue of the rocks on which they stand. On the other hand, if you approach them in the rear, the isle appears as if covered with a black pall.

On one occasion, whilst at anchor at Great Macatina, one of our boats was sent for eggs. The sailors had 8 miles to pull before reaching the Murre Islands, and yet ere many hours had elapsed the boat was again alongside, loaded to a few inches of the gunwale with 2,500 eggs. Many of them, however, being addled, were thrown overboard. The order given to the tars had been to bring only a few dozens, but, as they said, they bad forgotten.

Mr. William Brewster (1883), when he visited this region in 1881, found the murres still breeding on Parroquet Island near Mingan, of which he writes:

When we first saw the place the water was covered with murres, and hundreds were sitting on their eggs along the ledges of the western end of the island but a week later, when we landed there, the colony had been practically annihilated by Indians, and the few birds remaining were so shy that I could not get near any of them. All that I saw, however, seemed to belong to the present species.

In 1861 Verrill found murres breeding In large numbers at the eastern end of Anticosti; but we saw none there, although razor-billed auks were numerous at Wreck Bay.

In 1884 Mr. M. Abbott Frazar (1887) spent the summer in the vicinity of Cape Whittle on this coast and reported the murre as “very common, but rapidly diminishing.” Doctor Townsend and I made a 250-mile trip along the south east of Labrador in 1909, cruising much of the time in a small boat among the islands, but we saw only nine murres, although we were constantly on the lookout for them. All the men with whom we talked, along the coast as far east as Natashquan, told us that no murres bred there now. At Parroquet Island we did n’~t even see any. The nine birds which we saw near Agwanus may have been migrants or stragglers from Bird Rock. Farther east, near Cape Whittle, a few colonies still remain; Doctor Charles W. Townsend in his explorations along this coast in 1915 found two breeding colonies of about a thousand pairs each.

On the north coast of Labrador the story is similar; where the murre was once common or abundant it is now very rare or has entirely disappeared. Mr. H. B. Bigelow (1902), writing of his trip to this coast in 1900, says:

We found the murres fairly common to Hamilton Inlet, north of which we saw very few. A large colony was reported to us, however, at Eclipse Harbor. Probably no bird has suffered more from the depredations of the eggers than this, which is in merely a remnant of its former numbers, Doctors Townsend and Allen (1907) reported that in 1906 they saw but very few murres on the Labrador coast, namely, 1 near Hawkes Harbor on July 16 and 10 near Indian Tickle on July 17.” On my two-months’ trip “down” the coast in 1912 I saw only one murre north of the Straits of Belle Isle and found no evidence of recent breeding colonies; there were some eggs in Reverend IV. W. Perretts’s collection taken many years ago near Nain.

I saw no signs of murre colonies on the west or north coasts of Newfoundland, but was told that they were still to be found on the south coast.

Courtship: Audubon (1840) has given us the following account of the courtship of the murre:

The guillemots pair (luring their migrations: many of them at least do so. While on my way toward Labrador they were constantly within sight, gambolling over the surface of the water, the males courting the females, and the latter receiving the caresses of their mates. These would at times rise erect In the sea, swell their throats, an(l emit a hoarse puffing guttural note to which the females at once responded, with numerous noddings to their beaux. Then the pair would rise, take a round In the air, re-alight, and seal the conjugal compact; after which they flew or swam together for the season, and ~ closely that among multitudes on the wing or on the waves one might easily distinguish a mated pair.

Nesting: The Bird Rock colonies have been so often described that any lengthy account of them would be unnecessary repetition. At the time of our visit, June 23 to 25, 1904, the total population of the rock was estimated as about 10,000 birds. We thought that the common murres ranked about fifth in numerical strength, although not far behind the Brfinnich’s inurres in this respect. I estimated that the common murres numbered about 1,400. The murres and Bri~nnich’s murres were nesting in mixed colonies, arranged in long rows along the narrower ledges, such as were not available for gannets. The eggs were generally inaccessible, except with the aid of a rope, and were mostly on the lower or middle sections of the cliffs, but there were some which we could reach by going down the ladders and climbing around on the broader ledges. Here the eggs were laid on the bare rock or on the loose soil accumulated by disintegrating rock; they were laid in rows, about as close as the birds could sit, and usually with the smaller end pointing c’itward. Nearly every one who has written about the eggs of the murres has called attention to their pyriforin shape, which is supposed to cause them to roll in a circle, when disturbed, instead of rolling off the ledges; but anyone who has had much experience in murre rookeries knows that any sudden disturbance, which frightens the birds off their nests, generally results in a shower of eggs, showing that this theory does not always work out in practice.

On the flat rocky islands off t.he south coast of Labrador the murres evidently nested in compact open colonies, as is often the case with the California murres. Such colonies were much more easily robbed of their eggs than the cliff colonies, which would account for their rapid extermination. Dr. Townsend writes me, in regard to one of the islands he visited near Cape Whittle:

On one of these, Outer Island, off Coacoacho Bay, besides the nests of some 600 pairs of double-crested cormorants, were about a thousand eggs of murres. The combined colony of these two species was crowded together on about an acre of the summit of the small rocky island. The large nests of the doublecrested cormorant occupied every available site, and the eggs of the murres were thickly scattered between the nests. This was on July 14, and nearly all of the cormorant eggs had hatched and the young in various stages were clamoring for food. None of the murres’ eggs had hatched, some were fi-esh, but the majority were considerably incubated. As we janded on the liland most of the adult corinorants took to flight but the murres allowed a close approach, and, as we walked among them, they shuffled out of the way, walking almost erect and moving their small wings like arms. Every now and then they would fall over on their bellies, and they often launched themselves headlong over the rocks in their efforts to take to wing. Everything was (hiuhed with excrement, the nests, rocks, and eggs. Most of the murres’ eggs were so covered with the filth that their beautiful markings could not be seen, and the birds themselves hail sadly soiled their white breasts. I counted a hundred eggs in the space 10 feet square.

Eggs: The murre lays a single egg, which varies in shape from ovate pyriforin” to “elliptical ovate” or “elongate ovate,” with a decided tendency toward the more pointed form. The shell is thick, rather rough, and without luster; the egg is very tough and fortunately not easily broken, as it receives very rough usage. The eggs are not distinguishable from those of the other American species of Uria, and they are subject to almost endless variations in color and markings. The ground color shows a great variety of light blues, light greens, and intermediate shades, with all the paler tints down to pure white; these blue and green eggs are the commonest types; the less common types vary from “vinaceous tawny,” “pinkish buff,” or “cream buff” down to white. Some eggs, particularly the palest types, are entirely spotless, but the great majority of them are more or less heavily and conspicuously marked in an endless variety of patterns, finely speckled, deeply clouded and washed, heavily and boldly blotched or beautifully scrawled in fantastic patterns of two or three colors. Most of the markings are in the darkest shades of brown or sooty black, but some are in the brighter or lighter shades, such as “bay,”” chestnut,~’ “burnt umber,~~ or “sepia.” Many eggs show lines and scrawls of olive shades, light browns, drab, lilac, or lavender. The eggs are usually handsome, and a large series of them makes a striking display. The measurements of 64 eggs in the average 81 by 50.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 89 by 50.5, 84 by 54.5, and 66 by 44 millimeters.

The period of incubation is given as from four weeks to one month. Both sexes assist in this duty and the male usually stands beside the female while she is incubating, except when he finds it necessary to go to sea for food. The incubating bird sits horizontally upon the egg, as other birds do, and not standing up straddling it, as some writers have stated. The following quotation from Yarrell (1871) is interesting:

It may be accepted as a fact that each bird recognizes its own egg, for Messrs. Theodore Walker and G. Maclachlan marked a number of birds on the ledges at Barra Head by splashing red paint over them, and the same individuals were found at their accustomed post day after day. Mr. Seebohm says that, at Fiamborough, Lowney the veteran cliff climber is of opinion that if the egg is taken the same bird will lay a second about nine (lays later, and this agrees with the experience of Mr. Maclachian; but if the second egg is taken the bird lays no more that season. If undisturbed, the same birds return year by year to the same ledge and deposit their egg in the same spot, but if the eggs are taken the birds will shift their ground; it may he only to the next ledge. It is also pretty well established that the same bird lays a similar egg year after year.

Young: The young are fed by both parents, at first 011 semidigested food, but later on small fishes and other marine animals.

When about 5 Or 6 weeks old, long before they are grown or fully fledged, they are able to take to the water and they often do so, either accidentally or because forced off the ledges by their parents. Because of this habit the breeding rookeries are deserted by both old and young birds much earlier than would be expected and long before the other species that breed with them have left. During the last week in July, 1915, I visited Bird Rock to study and collect the young of the various species to be found breeding there, but was disappointed to find that many, perhaps most, of the common murres had left. There were quite a number of very small downy young which were still unable to move about much and a few of the larger young, about half grown and wearing their soft, juvenal phunage; these half-grown birds were very lively and very noisy; evidently they had about reached the stage where they are ready to leave and probably many of them had already left. I estimated that there were not over one-quarter as many murres on the rock as I saw on my previous visit, but this apparently striking reduction in numbers was probably partially due to the fact that so many had already left.

Various writers have stated that the young birds are transported to the water on the backs of their parents or that the old bird carries the young one in its bill, seizing it by the neck or the wing. Both of these methods seem improbable, and I can not find an authentic account of anyone who has seen it done. Where it is possible to do so, the young birds probably scramble or climb down to the water’s edge; but where they breed on steep cliffs overhanging the water, the following method, described by Giitke (1895), is probably the one usually employed; he writes:

In Heligoland this descent of the young bIrds from the cliff to the sea Is accomplished in the following manner: On very fine calm evenings at the end of June or the beginning of July one may hear soon after sunset, from a distance of more than a mile, the confused noise of a thousand voices, the calls of the parent birds, arr-r-r-r: orr-r-r-r: : errr-r-r-r, and mingled with these the countless tiny voices of their young offspring on the face of the cliff, irrr-r-r-~dd: –irrr-r-r-~dd, uttered in timid and anxious accents. The old birds swim about quite close to the foot of the cliff, and the tone of their Incessant calls has in It something really persuasive and reasoning, as though they were saying In their language, “Now, do come down, don’t be afraid, It Is not so hard as It looks,” ~vhilst the little timorous voices from above seem to reply quite distinctly, “I can not, I an, so afraid, it Is so dreadfully high.” Nevertheless, In its distress, the little chick tries to get as near as possible to the mother waiting for It below, and keeps tripping about on the outermost ledge of rock, often of no more than a finger’s breadth, until It ends by slipping off, and. turning two or three somersaults, lands with a faint splash on the surface of the water; both parents at once take charge of It between them, and swim off with It toward the open sea.

Plumages: When first hatched the young murre is covered with short down which varies from “bone brown” to ” hair brown” above, almost black on the head and neck, except that the throat is mottled with white; the under parts are white; the head and neck are sparsely covered with long, hairlike ifiaments, grayish white or buffy white in color, giving the bird a coarse, hairy appearance. The juvenal plumage is acquired when the young bird is about half grown and is not very different, except in texture, from the first winter plumage, dark “seal brown” above, including the sides of the head and neck, the throat mottled with dusky and whitish and the under parts white; there are no white tips on the secondaries in this plumage and the bill is very small. This first plumage is replaced, by the end of September, by the first winter plumage, which is similar to the adult winter plumage. Young birds may be recognized, however, by their smaller and lighter colored bills, by their mottled throats, and by having less white on the sides of the head and neck. A partial molt takes place in the spring, at which a plumage similar to the adult nuptial plumage is assumed; but young birds are still recognizable by their bills until after the postnuptial molt, when the adult plumage is assumed.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt beginning sometimes in August but often not until September; I have seen birds beginning to molt as early as August 2 and others which had not started to molt on September 11; I have also seen birds in full spring plumage in December. Adults in winter can be recognized by having larger and blacker bills, white throats, and more white on the sides of the head and neck than in young birds, although the latter character is not very ~vell marked. The adult winter plumage is worn for a short time only, as the prenuptiall molt sometimes begins as early as November and is often completed in December. In studying large series of California murres I have been puzzled to decide whether certain fall specimens were molting into or out of the winter plumage, and I am led to infer that the birds are in nearly continual molt throughout the fall, and that many individuals never acquire the full winter plumage, as the two molts may overlap. Probably most of the birds in winter plumages in collections are young bird.~, as the prenuptial molt in young birds does not occur until spring.

Before leaving the subject of plumages we might consider briefly the status of the ringed murre (Uria ringvia), which now seems to be regarded as a plumage phase of the common species. The evidence is puzzling and far from conclusive, though most of it seems to indicate that the ringed murre, with its conspicuous white spectacles, is a distinct species. Macgillivray (1852) treats it as a doubtful species under the name Uria lacrymans, but says that, in searching his collections, he finds “only one specimen, which, however, is very interesting, it being a young bird in its first winter plumage, thus proving that the ring is not peculiar to old buds, as had been supposed.”

Mr. William Brewster (1883), Dr. Louis B. Bishop (1889), and Mr. C. J. Maynard (1896) all reported this bird in mated pairs on Bird Rock, and suggested that it be entitled to specific rank. On my visit to Bird Rock in 1915, 11 ringed murres were noted in a group by themselves. Doctor Townsend, the same season, saw about 15 together in one place, on the south coast of Labrador, all belonging to this form. Mr. Brewster added the following comment:

If, as has been so generally maintained, it is simply an exceptional or dichromatic condition of L. troite, it is difficult to account for the fact that two or three ringed individuals had selected mates of their own style among so many thousands of the common kind, for it is well known that with other birds addicted to dichromatism or great variability, the different varieties are quite as apt to be found paired with their opposite extremes as with individuals of similar coloring.

Mr. William Palmer (1890) noticed in a specimen of this forln, collected at Bird Rock, that its feet “were much smaller and less strongly colored” than those of the common murre. And finally no such phase occurs in the California murre, the Pacific subspecies.

On the other hand, Mr. Howard Saunders, in editing Yarrell’s British Birds (1871), states that, on the Fame Islands, he “observed several birds with well-developed eye rings and streaks, sitting on their eggs, whilst others exhibited gradations from the above to the usual furrow, with only a few white feathers at its junction with the eye.” Dr. Charles W. Townsend (1907) quotes Mr. S. H. C. Muller as saying that it “is certainly only a variety of Uria troile. I have been an eyewitness that a ringed and a common guillemot have paired themselves together and, besides, have seen a rin~gvia feed a young one which a troile had under its wing.” With the above evidence before him I shall let the reader bring in his own verdict.

Food: The food of the murre consists largely of lant, capelin, and other small fishes or the fry of larger species, which it pursues and catches under water. Morris (1903) quotes the following account, to show the apparent intelligence displayed by the murre in the purslut of its prey:

Mr. Couch observes of the guillemot, in his Illustrations of Instinct, “I have watched with much interest the proceedings of this bird when capturing the stragglers of a school of young mullets, and the admirable skill with which their dispersion was prevented until a full meal had been secured. It is the nature Gf this bird, as well as of most of those birds which habitually dive to take their prey, to perform all their evolutions under water with the aid of their wings; but instead of dashing at once into the midst of the terrified group of small fry, by which only a few would be captured, it passes round and round them, and so drives them into a heap, and thus has an opportunity of snatching here one and there another, as it finds ft convenient to swallow them, and if any one pushes out to escape, it falls the first prey of the devourer.”

The murre also feeds on shrimps and other crustaceans, manne rnsects, and other soft-bodied animals which it finds in the sea. Morris (1903) says that it feeds “on sprats, young herrings, anchovies, sardines, and other fish, mollusca, testacea, and sea insects.”

Behavior: The murre’s flight is swift, direct, strong, and protracted, accomplished by steady, rapid wing beats. When traveling long distances it flies in flocks high in the air, but when moving about near its feeding or breeding grounds it flies close to the water with frequent turnings from side to side. It is so heavy bodied and small winged that it can not rise off the water without pattering along the surface. In flying from a cliff, it glides rapidly downward at a steep angle, sweeping in a long curve outward and into a level course. Its momentum is so great in proportion to its wing area that, in alighting on a ledge, it has to approach it in a long upward curve and check its speed by flattening its body, spreading its feet and “back peddling” vigorously with its wings; even then it alights far from gracefully. I found that with practice, one could learn to distinguish the common murre in flight from either the razor-billed auk or the Brfinnich’s murre, even at a considerable distance. The razorbill is the shortest and most compact; the common murre is the longest and slenderest and the Brfinnich’s murre is intermediate between the other two in that respect. The common murre usually carries its head and neck well stretched out and somewhat below the level of its body, whereas Brbnnich’s carries its shorter neck nearly straight and the razorbill still more so.

In diving the murre flops under with its wings half spread, using both wings and feet, or perhaps only the wings, in the rapid subaqueous flight necessary to capture the small fish on which it feeds. Mr. Edmund Selous (1905) writes:

Whilst watching the guillemots (common murres) on the ledges, one of them flew down into the sea, just below, which was like a great, clear basin, and thus gave me the first opportunity I have yet had of seeing a guillemot under water. It progressed, like the razorbill and puffin, by repeated strokes of its wings, which were not, however, outs9read as In flight, but held as they are when closed, parallel, that is to say, roughly speaking, with the sides, from which they were moved outward, and then back with a flap-like motion, as though attached to them all along. Thus the flight through the water Is managed in a very different way from the flight through the air.

Although much of the murre’s food is obtainable near the surface or at moderate depths, it must occasionally dive to considerable depths, for Mr. J. H. Gurney (1918) states that Mr. William Leckie has “seen guillemots brought up in nets which were set at a depth of 120 feet”; again he says “we are told of guillemots being often taken in cod nets in Loch Striven at a depth of 180 feet.”

The vocal powers of the murre are decidedly limited. The only note I have heard it utter on its breeding grounds is a soft, purring sound suggested by its name. This seems to be given in a conversational tone, as a means of friendly communication. This characteristic purring sound is constantly heard throughout the breeding season on Bird Rock and it is often accompanied by the ludicrous bowing performance which looks like a courtship salute but probably has no such significance, as it is seen quite as often late in the season as earlier; probably it is a sign of nervousness or agitation. While several birds are crowded together on a narrow ledge one begins by swinging the head and neck rapidly downward in a graceful curve until the bill almost touches the rock, one after another the others follow suit until all have taken part in the curious salute. uttering their soft notes simultaneously.

Murres might be considered the doves among sea birds, for they are the gentlest and most harmless of all. They live in densely packed colonies of their own, and closely related species in perfect harmony with them; and they are often intimately associated with gulls, cormorants, and other species, occupying the same ledges within a few feet, or even a few inches, of their neighbors, with whom they seldom quarrel, and against whom they are almost never the aggressors. On the other hand, they are often the patient, innocent sufferers from the depredations of their many enemies, chiefly the larger gulls, which rob them of their eggs and young. The Kittiwakes, I believe, never trouble them. Their worst enemies are, of c*urse, human beings, who have for generations killed them in enormous numbers and robbed them of their eggs unmercifully, as indicated above, until they have been practically extirpated in their former strongholds on the Labrador coasts.

Fall: The murres leave their breeding grounds as soon as the young are able to swim and before the young can fly they begin swimming away from the cliffs. The migration consists mainly of a gradual movement out onto the open sea where the birds spend the winter and this may not be at any great distance from the breeding grounds except where ice forces them to travel farther. The common murre seems to have been abundant on the New England coast in winter in Audubon’s time, but within recent years it has become very rare, probably on account of its practical extermination on the Labrador coast. There has not been such a markeP decrease in the numbers of ]3riinnich’s murre, which still breeds abundantly in Greenland and the far north.

Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the Nort.h Atlantic. From the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Bird Rock and islands along north shore) and Newfoundland, northward along the Labrador coast to southern Greenland. Also from Portugal (Berlenger Islands) and western France, northward through the British Isles to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Norway (Varanger Fiord).

Winter range: From Labrador (Hamilton Inlet), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to coast of Maine. rarely to Massachusetts (one specimen in Boston Society of National History. All other recent records refer to Briinni~h’s murre with little doubt). The Rhode Island record is considered very doubtful and all from south of New England can not be verified, but probably refer to lomvia. In Europe from the British Isles south to the west coast of Morocco: occasional in the Mediterranean Sea (Malta) and recorded from the Canary Islands.

Casual records: Recorded from York Factory. Hudson Bay, by Swainson and Richardson, and taken by Bell in Hudson Bay in 1885.

Egg dates: Gulf of St. Lawrence: 35 records, May 20 to July 25; 18 records, June 18 to July 1. Great Britain: 20 records, May 10 to June 19; 10 records, June 5 to 13. Newfoundland: 3 records, June 14 and 20 and July 3.



The Pacific coast subspecies of the common murre differs but slightly in appearance or in habits from its relative of the Atlantic Ocean; it is somewhat larger and its bill is a little different in shape and relative dimensions; its: life history is so similar that I shall not attempt to repeat what I have said about the foregoing bird, but shall endeavor to give what additional information we have relating to the California murre and describe a few of its most striking breeding colonies. Whereas the Atlantic murre is now confined, in the breeding season, to a few restricted localities on the American side of the ocean, the California murre is very widely distributed all along the Pacific coast, breeding in nearly all suitable localities, from the Santa Barbara Islands, off southern California, to the Pribilof and other islands in Bering Sea. Moreover, the common murre is comparatively rare as an American bird, whereas the California murre is excessively abundant throughout most of its range.

The name, California murre, at once suggests the Farallone Islands, one of the largest and certainly the most famous of the breeding resorts of this species. These islands are far too well known and have been too often written up to require any elaborate description here. But, for the benefit of those of us who have never been there, I am tempted to quote the following short historical and descriptive note by Mr. W. Otto Emerson (1904):

From the old Spanish chronicles we learn of the discovery of the Farailone Islands in 1543 by Ferrelo. It was Sir Francis Drake, however, who gave us the first particular description of the “Island of St. James,” as they were then known (1579). Drake, it seems, landed to replenish his larder with seal meat. Doubtless he laid in a stock of eggs, for a man is never too old a boy to collect eggs where they may be had for the taking. In 1775 Bodega and Maurelle, on their way up the northwest coast, named the islands “Los Farallones de los Frayles,” in honor of the monks who had discovered San Francisco Bay in 1769, the same year that the Franciscans founded their first mission in Altn California, at San Diego. The first settlers on the islands, we know, were Russians from the North, who came with Aleuts to fish and seal hunt. There remain to-day, on the southeastern part of the island, the well-preserved stone wails of their low huts, but the date of their occupancy Is unknown.

The islands are formed of crystalline granite, a ridge rising many hundred feet above the ocean floor. Sugar Loaf Rock in Fishermans Bay is an exception, being a conglomerate of coarse gravel standing isolated 185 feet above sea level. South Farallone Island is the largest of the group. At water line the rocks are of a blackish brown where the surf beats, and then above high water mark change to a yellow or light grayish tone over all the island, where not occupied by the roosting or nesting areas of the sea fowl or changed by the presence of introduced plants. The granite readily yields to a pick and offers a firm footing but is rather hard on shoe leather. Shore lines are all cut up into great channel-like troughs, with arched grottos running far into the rock and filled wIth gorgeously tinted marine life. There are natural bridges, pot holes, and shelving ledges of all descriptions.

Mr. Walter E. Bryant (1888) says that the California murres “begin to arrive on the island in myriad numbers by the first of April. Their arrival usually occurs at night, when great numbers come suddenly, and perhaps leave the next day; especially are they likely to leave soon after coming: and before mating: if a storm occurs, returning, of course, later.”

Nesting: Mr. Milton S. Ray (1904) gives a very good account of the main breeding colonies on the Farallones as follows:

The largest rookeries on the main island are in Great Murre Cave and at Tower Point, on East End, oo the rocky shelves and terraces below Main Top Peak, and on the dizzy sides, from sea to summit, of the Great Arch, the natural bridge par excellence, on West End. The birds also breed abundantly all along the ridge and in the numberless grottoe~ along the seashore, while the surrounding islets are covered with them in countless. thousands. Great Murre Cave, which runs in from the ocean on Shulbrick Point, with its vast bird population, is a wonder to behold. All ledges and projections, as well as the cave floor, were murre covered, and on our approach the great colony became a scene of animation, with a vast nodding of dusky heads and a ringing concert of gurgling cries. The birds, at first in tens and then in twenties, flew out, or by sprawling and flapping over the rocks and into the foaming surf, thus gained the open sea. Some were terribly thrown about in the breakers but apparently received little injury. On our entrance the main body took flight, with a mighty roar of wings, and so close did they fill the cave that it behooved us to get behind bowlders to prevent being struck by them. Many birds still remained in the cave, retreating deep into the branching recesses or, sheeplike, huddled into the corners, where they could be picked up by the hand. The multitudes which took wing would wait, scattered over the water about a quarter of a mile from shore, until the commotion was over and would thea come trooping hack to the cave.

Messrs. Finley and Bohiman in various illustrated articles and lectures have made famous the great breeding colonies of California murres on the Three Arch Rocks, off the coast of Oregon. In these wonderful rookeries the population is fully as dense as on the Farallones, though fewer naturalists have seen them. Mr. Finley (1905) has given us an interesting account of the behavior of the murres in their efforts to find their own eggs, as follows:

When a murre arrived from the fishing grounds, he lit on the outer edge of the table, where be looked about after two or three elfiborate bows. Then, like a man in a Fourth of July crowd, he looked for an opening in the dense front ranks. Seeing none, he boldly squeezed in, pushing and shoving to right and left. The neighbors resented such behavior and pecked at the new arrival with their long, sharp bills, but on he pressed, amid much opposition and complaint, until he reached his wife. They changed places, and he took up his vigli on the egg. The wife, upon leaving the rookery, instead of taking flight from where she stood, went through the former proceeding, although in reverse order, much to the disgust of the neighbors. They made a vigorous protest, and sped the departing sister with a fusillade of blows, until she arrived at the edge of the ledge, where she dropped off into space. Others were coming and going and kept up an interesting performance for the onlooker from above.

Then we went down and scared all the birds from the ledge and watched them return. Almost before we got back into position the first one pitched awkwardly in t,nd lit on the edge. She sat for a little bit clucking and craning her neck. Then she hobbled up the rock past two eggs, bowing and looking around. On she went in her straddling gait, stopping and cocking her head on one side till I saw her pass eight or nine eggs. Finally she poked an egg gently with her bill, looked it over, and tucked it under her leg. By that time the ledge was half full of birds, all cackling, pecking at each other, and shuffling about looking among the eggs. It took almost half an hour for life in the colony to drop back to its normal stage.

My own experience with the nesting habits of the California murre was gained on the bird islands of Bering Sea. Among the vast hordes of Pallas’s murres, which we found breeding on the rocky pinnacles of Bogoslof Island on July 4, 1911, we saw a few scattering pairs of California murres and on the fiat top of the high, rounded cliff at the west end of the island, the sides of which were covered with Pallas’s murres, we found several small compact colonies of California murres sitting on their eggs in close bunches of 15 or 20 pairs. No other breeding colonies were follnd among the Aleutian Islands, but we found plenty of murres, mostly of this species, on the perpendicular cliffs at the north end of St. Matthew Island. Although the murre colonies at Bogoslof Island were the most extensive I had ever seen and probably included the greatest number of birds, they were totally eclipsed in density by the wonderful colonies on Walrus Island. This is a most remarkable little island, an ornithological wonderland, where 10 species of sea birds breed in countless multitudes, far surpassing anything I have ever seen. The California inurres rank first in numbers, literally covering the low cliffs and rocky shores all around the island, as well as large spaces on top of it, with dense masses of birds sitting remarkably closely. They were exceedingly tame or stupid and would allow a near approach; but if hard pressed, they would rise on their toes and waddle off, flapping their wings rapidly. The clatter of many hundred pairs of wings increasing to a deafening roar, they would pour off in streams, stumbling over each other as they scrambled down to the water, pattering over its surface to join the distant rafts of murres on the water or diving straight downward and flying away rapidly below the surface. Among the many thousands of California murres with which the island was mainly populated we noticed a few of the thick-billed Pallas’s murres, which could be easily recognized by their blacker heads and stockier build. The relative abundance and distribution of these two species on this island seems to change from time to time, for Dr. F. A. Lucas (1901) wntes:

Mr. William Palmer notes that at the time of his visit in 1890 these birds were mostly on the western side, while on the east and south were the legions of the California murre (Uria troiie caldfondca), hut no such striking peculiarity of distribution was noticed by our party, nor were the California murres much in evidence.

Eggs: The description already written of the eggs of the common murre will do equally well for the eggs of this subspecies for there is no constant difference between the two, except a slight average difference in size. Both are subject to almost endless variations in round color and pattern of markings. Mr. W. L. Dawson (1909) says on this subject:

It would appear highly probable that this variety is introduced by nature to facilitate recognition on the part of the birds, whose property might otherwise become hopelessly confused or lost Certainly no two adjacent eggs are exactly alike, and the differences are usually so striking that a birdless ledge looks like an oalogical bouquet These differences, moreover, are probably constant as between given birds. At least we found by experiment in 1907 that if a handsomely marked egg were removed, another of the same type might be expected in its place from one to three weeks later.

The measurements of 74 eggs, in the collection average 82.2 by 50.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 90 by 52, 84 by 54, and 69.5 by 42.5 millimeters.

Young: This species has been reported as raising two broods in a season, but this is undoubtedly an error due to the prolonged breeding season on account of frequent robbing. Mr. XV. Otto Emerson gives the period of incubation, in which both sexes share, as 28 days. The yonng remain on the ledges where they are hatched until about half grown and are, at least partially, fledged in their soft juvenal plumage, but they are induced by their parents to take to the water long before they can fly. Mr. Finley (1905) gives the following graphic account of the behavior of the young murres and their brooding parents:

Where it was a little noisy during the days of incubation, it was the triple extract of bedlam turned loose when the murres had young. We tried the same experiment of scaring the birds from the ledge and watched their return. The young kept up a constant squealing from the time the old birds left; a noise that had the penetration of an equal number of young pigs that had just been roped and gunney sacked. When the first old hen returned and lit on the edge, she bowed elaborutely and started cnlling in cries that sounded, at times, Just like the bass voice of a man and varied all the way up to the cackling of an old chicken. After sitting there for five minutes, she straddled up a few steps and started in from the beginning again. Some of the young came waddling down to meet their parents, calling nil the time in piercing screams. One crawled hurriedly down to get under the old murre’s wing, but she gave him a jab that knocked him clear off his feet, and sent him looking for his real mamma. She looked at two more that sat squealing, but passed them by and knocked another one sprawling out of her way. At last a chick came up that seemed to qualify, for she let him crawl under her wing. The same thing seemed to be going on in every part of the ledge; I didn’t see an old bird that accepted a chick until after calling and looking around for from S to 20 minutes. If the difference in size, shape, and color helps the murre to recognize her own egg, then the great variation in pitch, volume, and tone of the voice surely helps her to know hew Own child among so many others.

As soon as the young murre reaches the water it swims away with its parents, often to a long distance from its birthplace. Prof. Leverett M. Loomis (1895) says that at Monterey: young birds, unable to fly and under the care of adults, appeared early in August, probably from a rookery somewhere in the vicinity of Point Santa Crus. These young birds were expert divers. When an adult and its charge were approached the young bird would dive first. If the two became separated the old one would call loudly and as soon as the young responded the old bird would dive, coming to the surface at the spot where the young one had taken refuge.

Mr. Andrew Halkett (1898) saw a murre “one day when hundreds of miles from land, on the surface of the waves with her brood, which consisted of a single young one.”

Plumages: I have been puzzled to find any constant characters by which the downy young of the two species of murres could be distinguished and between the two subspecies of each there is probably no constant difference. There is much individual variation in the young of all four. I have had so much difficulty myself in identifying young murres, in the rookeries where both species breed, that I have learned to look with suspicion on all specimens in collections, which may not have been correctly identified. Mr. William Palmer (1899), however, says:

The downy young of caUforaka would seem to differ from arra in the dry skin by being of a paler color, and by having the upper edge of the white of the under parts blending Into the dark neck color. instead of being bluntly and sharply separated, as in arra. The first feathering to appear on the young bird is on the wings and scapulars, along the sides of the breast and across the lower neck, Soon the down begins to drop off between the nostrils and the eyes and around the mouth and the base of the lower mandible, and as the birds get older the new feathering extends across the back, up the sides of the neck, and all over the under parts up to the bill. At the same time the feathering extends around the eyes and bill and running well back of the eyes, so that the only remains of the downy plumage is on the top of the head, extending down the back of the neck almost to the scapulars, scattering down the back, and extensive about the rump, where it is still attached to the tips of the new feathering beneath.

The sequence of plumages to maturity and the seasonal molts and plumages are of course similar to those of the common murre; in fact the greater part of what I have learned about the plumage changes of the species has come from a study of the large series of specimens which have been collected on the California coast.

Behavior: In its feeding habits, flight, swimming and diving habits the California mnurre does not differ from its Atlantic relative to any extent. Mr. Dawson (1.909) says that its “notes consist chiefly of a mumbled and apologetic ow ow, or a louder arry of protest; but occasionally the birds explode in stentorous kerawks, a.bsurdly out of character with their mild eyes.”

On their breeding grounds the poor murres have many enemies, among which the large gulls are the moet formidable, next to man. Any of the larger species of gulls which happen to be breeding near the murres love to feed on the eggs and young of the latter. but the western gulls on the Farrallone Islands are apparently the boldest and most successful robbers. Mr. Ray (1904) writes:

From my own observations I do not think that in a battle royal the gull with Its hooked bill has any advantage over the murre with its stiletto-like weapon, hilt succeeds in its high-handed robbery hy better control of wing and foot and overwhelming numbers. The gulls swoop down when the murres have been flushed from their eggs and secure the booty, or a number by harassing a single bird simultaneously from all sides finally start the egg a rolling. It is amusing to see a bob-tailed, erect, soldier-like murre with an egg between its legs and a single swaggering gull endeavoring to secure it. Every time the gull cranes Its neck forward for the egg the murre also heads with a vicious snap of its bill, which the gull is wise to dodge; and thus the birds will keep salaaming, like two polite Japanese, untli another gull comes to aid its fellow or, unaided, the bird gives up the attempt. The cave colonies are the only ones where the murres are secure from persecution by these bird pirates.

Mr. Bryant (1888) mentions two other enemies of the murres on Farallones, as follows:

The young sea lions have a great fondness for murre’s eggs, and as soon as they are large enough to know what an egg is, and once get the taste of them, they become another factor in the destruction of eggs. Mr. Emerson has seen young sea lions with their muzzles slobbered with egg. The old sea lions do not trouble the rookeries, but spend their time ashore basking about the water’s edge. The island mule has also found that eggs make an agreeable variation to his diet. He hunts nests very assiduously, growing fat and sleek in the breeding season.

The chief cause of egg destruction on the Farallones has been the depredations of the professional eggers; the results of their work in the past have been astounding, but fortunately for the murres this has long ago been stopped. Mr. Bryant (1888) says:

Between 1850 and 1856 there was reported to have been brought to San Francisco between three and four millions of eggs. For the last few years the number of eggs marketed has averaged from 180,000 to 228,000. In 1886 two men who were left on Sugar Loaf collected 108,000 eggs.

The eggs were considered a delicacy and sold in the markets at from 12 to 20 cents a dozen. The wholesale destruction of eggs reduced the numbers of the murres to such an extent that the attention of the Lighthouse Board was called to the matter in 1897, and they put a stop to the traffic, leaving the murres to contend with only their natural enemies. The methods employed by the eggers have been fully described by Mr. Bryant (1888) from which I quote the following:

Before proceeding further it will be well to notice closely the men who engage in this nest robbing extraordinary, and the methods they employ. The eggers are Italians and Greeks, usually those who have been engaged in fishing about the Islands. The first party to take possession each year manages to bold their position against all corners and to even defy the U’nited States authorities to remove them. Being trespassers, they have, on more than one occasion, been taken away, but only to return the following year. This season the party secreted themselves In Murre Cave while the revenue cutter Corw~ hovered about the island for hours. Living In caves or tents improvised from old sails and spars their requirements of life are few. A cotton flour sack (100-pound size) is made into an egg shirt by cutting out a hole In the bottom for the head and one on each side for arm holes; a gathering string is pnssed around the mouth of the sack which, when it is put on, is drawn tightly about the waist; a slit down the front of the shirt from the neck makes an opening for stowing the eggs, while a padding of Faralion weed inside on the bottom forms a cushion for them.

When sending the eggs to San Francisco they are simply tumbled into the fishing boat; many are thereby dented or slightly cracked, but they nre seldom broken enough to injure their market value. At San Francisco they are boxed and taken to market.

Fall: Mr. Bryant (1888) says that the murres begin to leave the Farallones “about the middle of September; by the first of October they have all left the island but can be seen upon the water.” Mr.

Loomis (1895) noted a decided migration of this species at Monterey, on August 17 and 18, 1894; on the 17th he noted that: Many were on the water, but the greater number were pursuing their way south. One flock of migrants had 30 in it. Migration in the California inurre was greater on the 18th than upon any previous day of the season. Not only did they appear in quicker succession, but large wedge-shaped flocks were numerous. A good many companies were on the water, but these were insignificant in numbers compared with those winging their way southward.

Winter: The California murres spend the winter in large numbers off the coast of California and many of them return to the Farallone Islands or their vicinity in December, although perhaps these are birds from farther north. There is a specimen in the collected at the Pribilof Islands on January .29, 1874, which shows that at least a few birds winter as far north as Bering Sea.

Breeding range: Coast and islands of the North Pacific and Bering Sea. From California (San Miguel Island, Farallones, and one or two points on the coast), Oregon (Three Arch Rocks), Washington (coast islands), British Columbia and coast of southern Alaska (Forrester Island and St. Lazaria Island) westward throughout the Aleutian Islands and Commander Islands to Kamtschatka. In Bering Sea it breeds north to the Pribilofs and on St. Matthew Island. Herald Island and Wrangel Island records apparently refer to arra.

Winter range: Throughout the North Pacific from the Aleutian and Commander Islands to California (Newport Beach, Orange County). One taken at the Pribilof Islands January 29 and others seen February 4.

Spring migration: Arrive at the Farallone Islands April 1.

Fall migration: Birds leave their breeding places on the Farallones from September 15 to October, and migrants passed Monterey commonly August 17 and 18.

Egg dates: Farallone Islands: 110 records, March 6 to July 25; 55 records, June 13 to July 4. Bering Sea: 6 records, July 3 to 22; 3 records, July 7 to 18. Southern Alaska: 3 records, June 20, July 10 and 12. Santa Barbara Islands: 3 records, June 5, 6, and 15.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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