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Pigeon Guillemot

Although these birds look like pigeons, they are actually water birds.

A small resident of rocky Pacific Coast habitats, the Pigeon Guillemot dives to the bottom of inshore marine waters to forage. Mainly using its wings for underwater propulsion, but its feet as well, the Pigeon Guillemot feeds at depths of up to 45 meters and in some cases stays submerged for over two minutes.

Pigeon Guillemots typically begin breeding at age three, four, or five. It is not uncommon for significant numbers of adults to fail to breed in a given year. In years of food shortage, the majority of pairs may not breed.


Description of the Pigeon Guillemot


The Pigeon Guillemot is a small seabird with a thin neck and round head. Its bill is thin and black.  Black plumage with white wing patches and a black bar in the white patch.

Pigeon Guillemot

Photograph © Glenn Bartley


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Winter birds are white with black mottling.


Juveniles resemble winter adults.


Rocky coastlines.



Pigeon Guillemot

Photograph © Glenn Bartley


Forages by diving.


Resident along much of the northern West Coast of North America.

Fun Facts

Adults alternate incubation duties at intervals ranging from 40 minutes to 17 hours.

Even unmated males defend territories.


Whistles, trills, and screams are given on the breeding grounds.


Similar Species


The nest is a scrape in a crevice or cave, or is placed under debris.

Number: 1-2.
Color: Blue-green with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:  
– Young hatch at 26-32 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) in 29-54 days after hatching.


Bent Life History of the Pigeon Guillemot

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 Pigeon Guillemot – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



From the painted caves of the Santa Barbara Islands northward to the bold rocky islands of northern Bering Sea we found the pigeon guillemot, the Pacific coast representative of our familiar “sea pigeon,” everywhere common in the vicinity of rocky shores or high precipitous cliffs, where it finds congenial summer homes. South of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula it is present throughout the year, but there is a decided migratory movement north of this line and probably a less noticeable migration throughout its range.

Spring: From its winter wanderings, at sea or along the coast, it returns in early spring to its breeding grounds. In the Commander Islands, according to Steineger (1885), this occurs as early as the middle of March, and farther north as soon as open water can be found. On their arrival at their breeding grounds the birds congreate about their favorite nesting sites, but are in no hurry to begin laying. Egg laying does not begin on the California coast much before the middle of May, and in the Aleutian Islands not before the middle or last of June. During the mating season the males indulge in many little squabbles and even vigorous combats. Dawson (1909) describes the encounter as follows:

A cockfight between rival suitors Is apt to be quite a spirited affair. As they face each other upon the surface of the water, the combatants hold their tails, inconspicuous at other times, bolt upright; and this, with their open mandibles disclosing a bright-red mouth and throat, gives the birds a somewhat formidable appearance. The actual scrimmage, however, is likely to take place beneath the water rather than upon It; and the onlooker has no means of guessing the battle’s progress till the weaker bird bursts from the water like a flying fish, and so by change of scene gains a momentary advantage of his pursuer or owns defeat outright.

Nesting: In the precipitous rocky cliffs of the Santa Barbara Islands are numerous large, deep caverns, worn away by the action of the waves, which have for unknown ages been pounding at the foundations of these solid walls of rock and carved them into fantastic shapes. At high tide or in rough weather most of them are inaccessible, but under favorable circumstances some of them can be explored in a boat or even on foot in safety. In the “painted caves” of Santa Cruz Island, one of the scenic spots of this region, we could row our boat far into the innermost recesses of picturesque winding channels and lofty, vaulted caverns of rock. A few cormorants were disturbed near the entrance and numerous pigeon guillemots darted past us from within, as the reports of our guns frightened them from their nests in the darkest corners. We were surprised to see also a number of house finches flitting about the high shelves and pinnacles of rock in the largest chambers, where they probably had nests within the reach of daylight. In such situations the guillemots lay their eggs in various nooks and crannies about the walls and roofs of the caves, in cavities under loose rocks, in open situations on flat rocks or shelves, or even on the sandy floor of the cave, if beyond the reach of daylight and water; as they seem to find security in darkness, these caverns offer many suitable nesting sites.

Much has been written about the nesting habits of the pigeon guillemot on the Farallone Islands, but the following extracts from Mr. Chester Barlow’s (1894) writings will suffice to give an idea of its normal nesting habits here and elsewhere:

The “sea pigeons,” or pigeon guillemots, are among the most interesting of the birds. They are lovers of the sea and prefer the rocks near the surf, when not incubating their eggs. We were fortunate in discovering a rookery of these birds, and had it not been late for fresh eggs, a splendid series could have been secured. The hill, at the summit of which is the lighthouse, is very steep, and the cliffs at the top are more or less honeycombed with burrows in which the puffins and auklets nest. Farther down is a stretch of loose, shifting chips of rock, while near the bottom are numerous boulders, some of gigantic proportions, under and between which are cavities in which the guillemots nest. As one approaches this rookery many of the birds are seen sitting upright, softly “whistling,” but upon close approach those on the rocks take wing, while their mates flutter from among the rocks and join them. Then, by a careful search of promising-looking cavities, one may secure a nice series.

No nest is constructed in which to deposit the eggs, but almost invariably the eggs repose upon a collection of small granite chips or pebbles gathered by the birds. Both birds assist at incubation, and I have a male bird taken with a set of two eggs. The rookery described is not near the ocean, but many of the gulliemots nest in holes in the cliffs above the sea. At any time groups of birds may be seen gathered on the rocks near the surf. I have noticed young ones so .close to the water that the spent force of a “roller” would almost wash them nway.

Mr. Milton S. Ray (1904) says of this species on the Farallones:

These birds became more abundant every day during our stay, but they did not begin to lay until the end of the first week in June. We found wellincubated single eggs as well as pairs; hence incubation must really have begun, although the majority of all the eggs we found were fresh. The nests, merely pebble-lined slight hollows, were located under projecting ledges, bowlders, or in spaces between piles of rocks, where they could be seen, not Infrequently, from above. I also noticed a number of pairs nesting under the wooden platform that overhangs the rocks at North Landing. It is usually several days after laying the first egg before the bird lays the second.

In the Puget Sound region the pigeon guillemot has frequently been found nesting in high cliffs or clay banks, sometimes 200 feet above the sea, where it excavates its own burrows. Dawson (1909) writes:

In excavating a tunnel in a claybank the bird uses beak and claws and lB forced at the outset to maintain herself in midair, a task which, by reason of her shortened wings, she accomplishes with no little exertion and infinitely less grace than that, say, displayed by a bank swallow. Not infrequently the bird encounters a bowlder a few inches in, and then the task is all to do over again. If, however, excavation has progressed sufficiently, the tunnel Is continued at right angles. These tunnels are driven at any height which pleases the pigeon’s fancy, and most of them are accessible only by rope, although Mr. Bowles records an instance near Tacoma of a tunnel which was placed only 2 feet above the beach line. Incubation lasts a little over three weeks, and eggs are oftener hatched after the 10th of July than before that date. The same burrows, if undisturbed, are used year after year.

Throughout the whole length of the Aleutian chain the pigeon guillemot was one of the common birds, sitting in little groups on the kelp-fringed rocks about the harbors or flying out around us in circles to satisfy its curiosity. We found it nesting during the latter half of June under the piles of loose rocks and bowiders along the shores, at the bases of rocky cliffs, as well as in the crevices in the rocks above. Farther north, on the rugged headlands of St. Matthew and Hall Islands, we saw a few pigeon guillemots flying out from the crevices in the lofty cliffs or sitting in little groups on the ledges among the puffins, aukiets, and fulmars. They were undoubtedly nesting here in the inaccessible crevices in the rocks, where the nests of all these species were beyond our reach.

Some observers state that the guillemot gathers small stones to line its nest, but this hardly seems likely; perhaps it may prefer to select hollows in which such small stones have accumulated, but it frequently lays its eggs on the bare rock or ground or in whatever debris it happens to find in a suitable cavity. It may scrape together into a pile what material is available within easy reach, but I doubt if it actually brings in any new material. The pigeon guillemot regularly lays two eggs; generally several days intervene between the laying of the first and second eggs, during which time incubation is going on.

Eggs: The eggs of the pigeon guillemot closely resemble those of the black guillemot, but they average slightly larger and are usually more heavily and more handsomely marked. The shape varies from pointed ovate to elongate ovate. The ground color varies from “pale glaucous green~~ to greenish white, bluish white, or pure white. The eggs are usually heavily spotted or boldly blotched with the darkest shades of brown or black; also with underlying spots and blotches of variout shades of drab, gray, lilac, or lavender, producing very pretty effects; many eggs are less boldly marked or even finely speckled. The measurements of 51 eggs in the average 60.5 by 41 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 68.5 by 41, 64 by 43.5, 57 by 39.5, and 60 by 38.5 millimeters.

Young: Mr. W. Otto Emerson, in his notes sent to Major Bendire, gives the period of incubation as 21 days and says that both sexes incubate by turns, both of which statements are corroborated by others. He also says that the young are fed principally on small fish and do not leave the nesting site for the water until they are fully fledged. After the first few days the young become very lively; they dislike daylight and, if exposed to it, will run away and hide in the remotest crevices; it is very difficult to catch them, much more so to photograph them, among the loose rocks where they live until big enough to fly. It is well that they are so secretive in their habits, for they have many enemies and protection is much needed at this critical time for the survival of the species.

Plumages: The young guillemot is hatched with a complete covering of soft, thick down, “fuscous black’~ above, shading into “clove brown” below. Late in July or early in August the juvenal plumage begins to appea.r on the sides of the breast. The juvenal plumage is similar to the corresponding plumage in the black guillemot, but it is usually more dusky both above and below, the dusky markings on the breast sometimes predominating. This plumage is worn through September, when a partial and gradual molt produces the first winter plumage. Young birds in winter are darker than adults, especially on the upper parts, which are almost wholly “fuscous black” without any white edgings; the throat and breast are mottled with dusky. A partial prenuptial molt in young birds takes place during March, April, and May, at which the black first nuptial plumage is partially acquired; but young birds may still be recoguized by the wings, in which the white patches are mottled with black and which are not molted until the following summer. Beginning about the middle of August, a complete postnuptial molt occurs, and by the last of September, when the young bird is between 14 and 15 months old, the adult winter plumage is acquired and old and young birds become indistinguishable.

The adult winter plumage differs from the first winter in being almost wholly white below and in having the scapulars broadly edged with white, the feathers of the back narrowly edged with white and the pure white wing patches. Adults have a prenuptial molt involving all the contour feathers, at which the black plumage is acquired; this molt is very much prolonged or variable, beginning often in February, sometimes in January, and lasting well into June. I have in my collection birds in full nuptial plumage, taken as early as May 2, and birds still showing many white feathers, taken as late as June 15. The postnuptial molt in adults is complete; it begins before the middle of August and is usually completed during September.

Food: The food of the pigeon guillemot seems to consist of small fish, mollusks, crustacea, and other marine animals which it obtains by diving as well as on the surface. Doctor Grinnell (1910) speaks of seeing one flying about its nesting site, “with a long yellow marine worm hanging from her bill.”

Behavior: In flight or on the water the pigeon guillemot closely resembles the black guillemot, the only distinguishing mark being the black wedge in the white wing patch, which is not very conspicuous at a distance. It flies swiftly and strongly, usually close to the water, and seems to prefer to fly out and around an approaching boat in a circle. It is a good diver and “flies” under water, using only its wings for propulsion, with its conspicuous red feet held straight out behind, probably to help it in steering. It swims buoyantly and gracefully, frequently with its head below the surface, as if feeding or looking for food. It congregates in small parties on the low rocks near the shore, to basic in the sun or to rest, where it stands nearly upright with its tail resting on the rock or sits upon its breast in a more restful attitude. Its feet are strong enough for it to stand upon and it can walk about quite freely.

The only notes which I have heard it utter are a faint, shrill, whistling call note and a hissing note of angry protest when disturbed on its nest. Nelson (1887) says:

Their common note is a low piping whistle, and Dr. Bean heard them uttering calls like the chipping of a sparrow.

The pigeon guillemot is associated on its breeding grounds with a great variety of other species, practically all of the seabirds of the Pacific coast, among which it seems to be always a peaceful and harm less neighbor. It never seems to disturb the eggs or young of other species. Its own eggs and young are usually too well concealed in the crevices among the rocks for the gulls to find them. Accord ing to Prof. Harold Heath (1915), these birds suffer greatly from the depredations of the northwestern crow, on Forrester Island, Alaska, for he observed that: Out of six pairs only one succeeded In hatching a brood, and cracked and punctured shells Indicated the culprit. The natives report that the fish crow destroys the eggs of every species of birds where nests are exposed, and they declare It to be fully as great a pest as the eagle.

Fall: The fall migration, which is nothing more than a withdrawal of the species from the northern portion of its breeding range, occurs late in the fall, with the closing in of the ice. Nelson (1887) says that, “when hunting far out at sea the Eskimo of Norton Sound find theni late in November about the holes in the ice.” South of the Aleutian Islands the species is present throughout the winter, but apparently less numerous than in summer because individuals are more widely scattered on the open sea; they are much shyer and are clad in their inconspicuous winter coat of gray and wliitc. Probably many of them spend the winter way off on the open ocean.

Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. From California (Santa Barbara Islands and Farallones), Oregon (Three Arch Rocks), Washington (Pu get Sound region), and British Columbia (Vancouver Island and Queen Charlotte Islands) along the coast of southern Alaska and throughout the Aleutian Islands; northward along the coast and islands of Bering Sea to Bering Strait; and from the Kurile Islands and the Commander Islands northward along the Siberian coast to East Cape and Koliutschin Bay. Perhaps rarely north to Cape Lisburne, Alaska.

Winter range: From the Aleutian Islands and the Pribilof Islands southward to California (San Clemente Island) and northern Japan.

Spring migration.: Migration in spring is limited to the return of the birds to their breeding places from the near-by sea. In Norton Sound, Alaska, this takes place from the last of March to the first of April, if open spaces occur in the sea ice. First arrivals at the Commander Islands were noted March 14.

Fall migration: They desert the breeding localities as soon as the young are raised and resort to the ocean in the vicinity. About Norton Sound they sometimes occur as late as November.

Egg dates: Farallone Islands: 63 records, May 3 to July 9; 32 records, June 1 to 26. British Columbia and Washington: 21 records, May 9 to July 13; 11 records, June 12 to 23. Santa Barbara Islands: 16 records, May 15 to July 18; 8 records, June 6 to 28. Southern Alaska: 7 records, June 15 to July 5; 4 records, June 18

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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