The Thick-billed Murre breeds on coastal, high-latitude cliffs, and is a skilled diver, known to reach depths of 200 meters and to stay submerged up to 3 minutes. Wingbeats are used for propulsion underwater. Thick-billed Murres nest at greater densities than any other bird, literally shoulder to shoulder in many places.
Thick-billed Murres don’t typically breed until age five or six. They nearly always return to the same breeding site in subsequent years. Oil spills and entanglement with fishing gear are known sources of mortality, although individuals have been known to live well over 25 years in the
Bent Life History of the Thick-billed 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 Thick-billed Murre – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
URIA LOMVIA LOMVIA (Linnaeus)
All along the bold rocky shores of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf of St. Lawrence northward to Greenland and Ellesmere Land, the thick-billed guillemot, as it was formerly called, or the Brunnich’s murre, as the eastern race of this species is now called, is one of the commonest sea birds, a characteristic bird of the rough, cold, northern ocean, following the first advance of spring among the breaking fields of ice to its summer breeding grounds on the rugged cliffs of our Arctic coasts.
Spring: Although it pushes northward as early as it can find open water, its breeding season does not begin, even in the southern portion of its range, until the middle of June or later. When we visited Bird Rock, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. which is near the southern limit of its breeding range, on June 24. 1904. the breeding season was well under way. but all the eggs examined were fresh or nearly so. The lighthouse keeper and his family welcome the return of the birds to the rock, after their long and lonesome winter, as a sign of coming spring and the opening of navigation. A few of the birds also serve as a welcome addition to their table, for they are fairly good eating where other fresh meat can not be obtained. The Bird Rock colony was estimated to contain at that time about 10,000 birds, made up of gannets, kittiwakes, razor-billed auks. Brunnich’s murres, murres, and puffins, their relative abundance being about in the order named. The two species of murres occupied the narrower ledges, which were not wide enough for the gannets. and were scattered all over the perpendicular sides of the red sandstone rock, both species being more or less intermingled and living in perfect harmony. On the south coast of Labrador west of Natashquan, where the murres were once so abundant, we found in 1909 only a few scattering birds and no breeding colonies. In 1884 Mr. William Brewster found a large colony of murres at the Parroquet Islands off Mingan. but at the present day not a murre is to be found breeding along the Labrador coast to the west of Mingan. Many years of persistent egging by Indians, fishermen, and professional eggers have practically exterminated them.
Mr. Lucien M. Turner found this species breeding abundantly on the Atlantic coast of Labrador in 1882, notably on the outlying islands of Hamilton Inlet, Davis Inlet, Cape Mugford, and Cape Chidley. He says in his unpublished notes:
Wherever these murres are found during the summer months there they breed. They select the high cliffs on which suitable ledges project. No attempt is made to construct R nest for In all the instances which have come under my observation the egg, sometimes two, are deposited on the bare rock. If the vicinity is one affording an abundance of food, many thousands of these birds resort to a single cliff to breed and often the eggs are so close together that one can scarcely step without touching two or more eggs.
Since that time great changes have taken place, for in 1912 I cruised the whole length of this coast, as far north as Cape Mugford, and saw only one solitary Erfinnich’s murre.
Courtship: Mr. W. Elmer Ekblaw contributes the following interesting notes on the courtship of this species:
The bIrds begin mating about the last week In May, the birds in their best years being probably the first to begin. The matIng season is at its heIght, however, about the fifteenth or twentieth of June. Mating takes place both on the ice and on the ledges of the cliff. Their courting and nuptial struggles are grotesque. The male is very aggressive and persistent, the female apparently most indifferent to all the male’s blandishments or reluctant to assume the task of incubation and brooding. Sometimes she so effectively resists the attentions of the male by pecking and striking him that he gives up in despair and neglects her. Then she usually squats seductively before him. The sexual act seems to be of great interest to the birds upon the same and neighboring ledges, for they crune their necks to watch it, and chatter volubly, as if commenting caustically upon such open and flagrant misconduct, even at home. Often a pair, in their nuptial struggles on the cliff, tumble precipitately off like balls of black-and-white yarn. The male does not for a moment release his hold upon the female’s crest, apparently determined to do or die, even though both he and she be dashed to death upon the ice or rocks below. But always, just as an awfnl bump seems inevitable, they separate, flying congenially out across the Ice or over the open sea.
Nesting: Mr. J. D. Figgins has sent me the following notes on the breeding habits of this species in Greenland:
Brilnaich’s murre nests on bare ledges of vertical cliffs (Parker Snow Bay and Saunders Island, Greenland) from near the water to about 200 feet above. The first eggs are laid about June 25. Because of excessive crowding of the narrow ledges and a lack of nest material, many eggs are lost. Fresh eggs were found about August 1, but there is no evidence of there being a second laying other than because of breakage. In other words, I saw no evidence of rearIng a second young. Both males and females were on the cliffs but In what proportion I am unable to say, but because of the absence of the birds, except in the immediate vicinity of the rookery, it may be presumed that they remain with the females during the season. The exception to this Is In the Instances where the young are on the water. Small young are often seen on the water at some distance from the rookery, always accompanied by the female only. Am young of considerable size were numerous on the cliffs during August, It was believed those seen on tile water had been dislodged rather than through intent of leaving the ledges.
As there Is no attempt at nest buIlding, eggs being deposited on the bare rock, many are lost througil tile continual cumbersome movements of the birds. Quarrels or unusual sounds often create local panics among the adults and when they leave the ledges a shower of eggs and often small young are precipitated to the water below. Gregarious In the extreme during the breeding season, Brlinnich’s murres mass upon certain ledges, although equally suitable localities adloin. There was no evidence of mating performances. Scolding was continuous.
Mr. Ekblaw has sent me the following account of the Saunders Island colony:
To attempt to paint an adequate picture of the rookery on Saunders Island would almost be futile; to succeed in doing so, would be to convict one’s self of wild exaggeration. Literally millions of the birds make the west end of the Island their home, and with them are associated hundreds of glaucous gulls and guiliemots and thousands of kittiwakes and fulmars; every niche, every ledge, furnishes nesting places; I believe the number of birds on the cUffs Is limited only by the number of possible nesting or perchIng places. The ledges formed by the harder, projecting strata are covered with birds; by the files of birds ranged upon them, one may trace the ledges with one’s eyes as far as one can see. When the rock back of the narrow ledge is dark brown or chocolate brown, the white underparts of the perched birds form a line that Is so distinctly visible that it seems like a band of white marble, between the black bands of the darker portions of the birds. Little niches or grottoes in the cliffs exhibit a salt-and-pepper admixture of white and black. Joint fissures, filled by debris or scree, form high columns of similar admixture. The noise on the cliffs is appalling; it sounds like a colossal poultry exhibit, or a combination of this with a similar crow rookery.
The cliffs resemble nothing so much as a mountain-sized beehive, with the bees swarming. When a gun is fired near, the cliffs become a pandemonium of startled cries and thrieks and screams, and a chaos of frightened forms dashing downward and outward like a storm cloud, over the Ice. The report of the gun but reaches the cliffs, when the birds all leave with a rush of wings that sounds for all the world like a tornado, so tumultuous is it. In a few moments the birds return, to fly back and forth until their alarm Is abated. They assemble again in long rows, tier upon tier, crowded so close together that it must be a tax upon their voluble good natures and alcidine tempers, to allow yet one more to alight in accordance with the saying “Always room for one more.” As It is, there seems to be but little argument over the crowding. though occasionally there are contests for the more desirable places, and some particularly aggressive bird coming in tired from the sea, pushes some more passive one off his ledge. Occasionally, too, a pair get into a real bill-to-bill fight, and tumble off the cliff, hanging on to each other for dear life, down upon the icefoot, or Into the sea. In the latter case, the fight usually continues fiercely for some time, and then suddenly, as if by agreement, It seems, they mutually abandon the contest and swim apart, preening themselves and smoothing their ruffled feelings and feathers.
The millions of birds fringing the ledges of these cliffs leave them for periods of several days in the early part of the season, but when the brooding season begins they sally out in the morning in long lines and files to the open water where they feed, to return to the cliffs in the evening. Though large numbers are constantly coming and going throughout the 24-hour day, the greatest exodus is at about 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning. Upon alighting on the ledges when they return, the birds face toward the cliff, give their wings a flutter or two, shake out their feathers vigorously, and preen them carefully. After a glance or two around to see which of their neighbors are at home and a friendly exchange of greetings with those nearest them, they face about and make a careful and critical examination of the prospect.
The Briinnich’s murre, like. its relative the common murre, makes no attempt at nest building. Its single egg is laid on a bare open ledge of rock, generally on some perpendicular and inaccessible cliff facing the sea, where its pyriform, pointed shape causes it to roll in a circle instead of rolling off the rock. The endless variety of color patterns in the eggs evidently assists the parent bird in finding its own egg among thousands of others in the colony. I have frequently seen a murre, on its arrival in a colony, waddle about among the eggs looking them over and even poking them about with its bill until the right one was found. Sometimes a mistake is made and the rightful owner finds a stranger sitting on its egg, which leads to a little squabble. That both sexes incubate I have proven by finding both males and females with bare abdominal spaces. The incubating bird sits in a horizontal position and does not “straddle” its single egg in an upright position, as has been stated; while one of a pair is incubating the other frequently stands beside it.
Eggs: The eggs of this species show such striking and endless variations in color patterns that any attempt to describe them can not but fail to convey an adequate idea of what a large series of these beautiful eggs will show. The prevailing ground color is bluish green or greenish blue, varying from pale bluish white to deep “Nile blue” or from pale greenish white to “glaucous green,” pale ” beryl green~~ or ” malachite green “; pale shades of ” apple green~~ or ” oil green” are rarely found; sometimes the ground color is pure white, varying to “cream buff” or “olive buff.” Absolutely spotless eggs of the lighter shades are occasionally found. Many eggs are more or less covered with small spots of various shades of dark brown and a few show underlying blotches of lilac or “ecru drab”; many are beautifully or fantastically scrawled with irregular markings of “ecru drab,~~ “wood ~ “raw umber,” “sepia,~~ or “clove brown.” But the prevailing types are more or less heavily blotched, spotted or scrawled with course markings of the last two shades. These blotches are often confluent in rings about the larger end of the egg. Some particularly handsome specimens are heavily clouded with lilac and light brown, overlaid with blotches of darker browns. They vary greatly in shape but are generally pyriform and elongated. The measurements of 41 eggs, in various collections average 80 by 50 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 87.5 by 53.5 and 67.5 by 43 millimeters.
Young: After a period of incubation lasting about 28 days the young murre is hatched in a weak and helpless condition. It is brooded and fed by its parents until it gains sufficient strength to move about, but it grows rapidly and soon becomes very lively. While in the helpless downy stage it makes a very shrill, but faint peeping noise; but when about half grown and clothed in its soft, juvenal plumage it can stand erect and walk or run about on the ledges, uttering its loud, shrill, emphatic cries, which sound to me like the syllables “beat it, beat i.t, beat it.” The cliffs fairly resound with the cries of the young at this season, the last week of July or first week of August on Bird Rock; it is the most critical period in their lives, for then it is that their parents are persuading them or forcing them to leave the cliffs, long before they can fly. and to take their chances on the watery deep. After making the perilous descent from the cliff the youngster is conducted by one or both of its fond parents out onto the open sea, often far from land. where it is well cared for until it learns to shift for itself. The young murres with their parents leave Bird Rock so early in the season, long before the other seabirds have left, that a visitor to the rock in August would get the impression that very few of this species had bred there.
Plumages: When first hatched the young Briinnich’s murre is covered with a short, thick coat of soft down, which varies from “blackish brown” or almost black to “clove brown,” “benzo brown,” or “snuff brown” on the upper parts, shading off to “mouse gray” on the throat and sides; there is a broad, median whitish streak on the breast and belly, but nothing like the extensive white under parts of the downy young U,-ia troille; the head and neck are variegated or mottled with many long, whitish or pale buffy filaments, which are soon shed. Mr. William Palmer (1899) has given a full and accurate description of the development of the downy young of the Pallas’s murre showing what becomes of these filaments. A soft juvenal plumage is worn until the young murre is nearly grown, when it is replaced by the first winter plumage. This differs from the adult plumage in being lighter brown on the back; the white of the throat is usually more mottled with dusky, but there are no constant plumage characters that I can find by which old and young birds can be distinguished in the fall. The bill of the young bird, however, is decidedly smaller and weaker than that of the adult. At the first prenuptial molt, which occurs late in the winter or early in the spring, young birds become indistinguishable from adults.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt beginning in August but often prolonged until late in the fall, by which the partially white throat of the winter plumage is acquired; the white of the throat is usually much more extensive and less mottled with dusky in old birds than in young. This plumage is apparently not worn for a long time in old birds and is replaced by a partial molt into the nuptial plumage during the winter, though the material available does not show this very clearly.
Food: The food of Brimnnich’s murre consists mainly of small fish, crustaceans, and mollusks, which it obtains at sea both on the surface and by diving, at which it is an adept. Mr. J. D. Figgins writes to me that “their food consists largely of marine insects and salmon-colored ovate eggs, or larvae, not determined.”
Behavior: Its flight in the air is strong, swift, and direct, with steady. rapid wing motion; its heavier, shorter build helps the praeticed eye to distinguish it from Uria troille; and from Alca torda it can be distinguished by the short neck and long tail of the latter bird. When launching into the air off a cliff or when rising from the ground or water, in which it experiences considera~Ae difficulty in calm weather; the body plumage is very much flattened, producing an aeroplane effect; it does the same thing when about to alight, checking its motion by spreading its body against the air with widely extended feet and rapidly “back peddling” with its wings. It is a good swimmer and an expert diver. When swimming below the surface it uses its wings to good advantage and makes rapid progress.
Mr. Turner says of its vocal performances:
The note of this species is at times peculiarly hoarse and guttural and at other times it makes a note impossible to imitate when it thrusts its beak into the water. Another sound uttered is exactly like the bleating of a sheep and also scarcely distinguishable from one of the sounds made by the fur seal Callorhinus urainus.
It is usually a silent bird, but has a soft purring note suggested by its name; I have also heard it utter a loud croaking note when on the wing.
Winter: Although the Briinnich’s murre often spends the winter as far north as it can find open water there is a general southward movement of the species. It frequently remains all winter in Hudson Bay during favorable seasons; it winters regularly in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the coast of Maine from November to March; it occurs more or less regularly off the coast of Massachusetts in winter and as a straggler to Long Island, and even to North and South Carolina. The erratic wanderings of this species in winter have furnished material for a large number of interesting records, along the Atlantic coast and, strangely enough, well into the interior, chiefly in the vicinity of the Great Lakes, as far west as Michigan and Indiana. Rather than attempt to give these records or even outline the unusual migration, I would refer the reader to an excellent paper on the subject read by Mr. J. H. Fleming, of Toronto, at the International Ornithological Congress in 1905. The conclusion to be drawn from a study of these wanderings, for a period of 15 years from 1890 to 1905, over a wide inland area far remote from the normal haunts of this maritime species, is that its winter feeding grounds in the southern portions of Hudson Bay became so thoroughly blocked with drift ice, and frozen over, that the birds were forced to migrate in search of food and many of them perished in a fruitless effort to find it.
Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. From the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Bird Rock), Newfoundland and Labrador northward to northern Greenland (Bowdam Bay, Smith Sound, Cape Sabine to 810 and 820), North Devon, Ellesmere Land, Prince Regent Inlet (Port Bowen), and presumably Hudson Bay. It was stated by the late Manly Hardy to have nested on an island in Penobscot Bay 50 years ago (about 1847) and a bird and egg were taken. Stone refers 17 specimens from Point Barrow, Alaska, to this form. In Europe breeds from Jan Mayen, Iceland, Spitzbergen, Franz Josef Land, and Nova Zembla to the Siberian coast (eastern limits not determined) and Bennett Islands, 760 39′ N.
Winter range: From Southern Greenland and Hudson Bay south to Maine. Irregular, but at times common, from Massachusetts, southward, New York (Long Island), New Jersey, and Delaware to South Carolina (Anderson). Occasionally common on the Great Lakes, straggling to northern Ohio (many taken 1896), Indiana (December, 1896), and central Iowa (two specimens). In Europe winters farther north, rarely south of Norway, Great Britain, and the North Sea.
Spring migration: Said to arrive at Franz Josef Land as early as March 9; at Prince Regent Inlet, west of Baffin Land, early in June. Northern Greenland, Cape York, May 10; Saunders Island, May 20; Cape Sabine, June 11.
Fall migration: Birds leave their nesting grounds by early September. The last seen in northeastern Greenland, latitude 740, August 1. Migration in the eastern United States usually occurs m December and through the Great Lake region during November or early December; Ontario, Ottawa, November 25 to December 8.
Egg dates: Bird Rock, Gulf of St. Lawrence: 16 records, June 5 to July 25; 8 records, June 18 to 26. Greenland: 8 records June 10 to July 18; 4 records July 3 to 12. Eastern Labrador: 4 records, June 10, July 1, 2, and 11.
URIA LOMVIA ARRA (Pallas)
The western form of Uria lo~nvia known as Pallas’s murre (Uria iomvia arra) is decidedly larger than the eastern or Atlantic form; the bill is larger and more slender and the white of the maxillary tomium is duller or more grayish. The “crowbill,” as it is called by the sailors, is the most important, probably the most numerous, and certainly the most generally distributed of the birds of Bering Sea. To the natives it is most valuable as an egg bird, for its eggs are large, palatable, abundant, and easily obtained; its flesh is also desirable as food. While cruising about the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, in the extensive fogs which prevail there almost constantly in summer, we found the murres very useful in helping us to locate certain islands which they frequent as breeding grounds; murres are constantly flying to and from such islands in their search for feeding grounds, and their unerring sense of direction leads them with certainty through the densest fog. Twice we passed near the dangerous volcanic reeks of Bogoslof and could not have located it except by noting the direction in which the murres were flying. They must fly long distances for food, for anywhere within a hundred miles of their breeding resorts they were frequently in sight.
Spring: The Pallas’s murres arrive on their breeding grounds in Bering Sea early in the season, following the leads in the ice, as it breaks up in the spring, and reaching their northern summer homes in the vicinity of Bering Strait before the end of May. They do not begin to lay before the middle of June, and fresh eggs may be found all through July or even into August.
Nesting: The largest breeding colony of Pallas’s murres, probably the largest breeding colony of any kind, that I have ever seen was on the most famous volcanic island of Bering Sea, Bogoslof Island, about 70 miles northwest of Unalaska. Considering the wonderful volcanic performances of this interesting island, it is surprising that the murres still resort to it as a breeding ground, for at each of its frequent eruptions many thousands of these poor birds have been killed; but still the “foolish guillemots,” as they have well been called, return to it again the next season. The violent eruptions of the summer of 1910 threw up enough material to join together the three little islands forming the Bogoslof group. In 1911 the volcano had subsided and the towering peaks of Castle Rock, from 200 to 300 feet high, were literally covered with nesting murres. I could hardly hazard a guess as to how many hundred thousand murres were breeding on this and on other portions of the island. On the steep sides of the rocky peaks every available ledge, shelf, or cavity was occupied by murres, sitting as close as they could, in long rows on the narrow ledges and in dense masses on the flat places and on the sloping piles of volcanic dust, sand, and loose rocks below the cliffs. As we walked up these slopes the murres began pouring off the rocks above us, sweeping down by us in steady streams, stumbling, scrambling, and bounding along over the rocks and stones, in their frantic efforts to get awing, a ludicrous performance; and down with them came a shower of eggs, dislodged in their haste, rolling or bounding along to smash on the first rock they struck. Plenty of birds still remained in the rookeries, however, and if we kept still the others would sooji return after circling about us in a bewildering cloud. They were very tame as a rule and, if approached cautiously, could almost be caught by hand; we had no difficulty in knocking them over with sticks. When undisturbed they usually sat facing the cliff, but when alarmed they would turn quickly about showing a row of white breasts. Occasionally, without any apparent cause and even when we were a long way off, a cloud of birds would leave the rookery, circle around the rocks several times in a steady stream and then quietly settle down again. They became more restless toward night and indulged in these spasmodic flighti more frequently, as the population of the colony was increased by the incoming birds. From about 5 o’clock until sunset birds were constantly coming in from their feeding grounds at sea, sometimes in regular formations, straight lines or V-shaped flocks, but more often in loose straggling masses or small bunches.
The Pallas’s murres do not differ materially from their eastern relatives in their breeding habits, in the development of the young, or in subsequent plumage changes. They mingle freely and live in harmony with the California murres. On Bogoslof Island we found a few scattering pairs and several small compact colonies of California murres among them. Both species breed on Walrus Island in the Pribilof group; at the time of our visit there were very few Pallas’s murres on this island, but at other times the reverse has been the case.
Eggs: The eggs are indistinguishable from those of the Brimnich’s murre, though they average a trifle larger. The measurements of 79 eggs in the collection average 82 by 51.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 91 by 55.5, 73 by 48, and 79 by 47 millimeters.
Young: Mr. William Palmer (1899) thus describes their method of feeding their young:
Like probably all their congeners the small young are fed by disgorged crustaceans, but I know that the larger young and even quite small individuals are fed upon whole fish. On August 4 I collected a young murre and also a small fish, a tufted blenny, Brijosternnu polyactocephalus (No. 43005, U.S.N.M.) lying at Its side. I had previously witnessed the feeding of several others. With the breast to the rock the mother lands, and bending her head downward to her young utters a harsh, croaking sound. The youngster raises its head and, taking the fish from its parent’s bill by the tail, works it sideways in its own bill, until it gets the head in its mouth, when the fish rapidly disappears. If the young has had enough, the fish is laid at its side until needed. The fish is carried by the parent with the head partly down its throat, the tail sticking out from between the man(libles.
Behavior: In their rookeries they live peaceably, as a rule, with only occasional little squabbles, but we once saw a most exciting fight between two birds in the air, a vigorous struggle, so absorbing that they paid no attention to us and fell to the water near our boat, where they continued the battle, both on the surface and below it, with bills, claws, and wings, making the water fly for several minutes, llntil one had enough and flew away with the other in hot pursuit. The presence of dead birds about the rookeries indicates that deadly combats may sometimes occur.
Winter: During mild winters the Pralla&s murres often spend the winter not. far from their summer homes in the southern portion of Bering Sea, but they ordinarily winter about the Aleutian Islands, where the water is usually open, or on the North Pacific Ocean. It is interesting to note in this connection that, whereas the Briinnich’s murre winters much farther south than the common murre on the Atlantic coast, the Palla&s murre winters much farther north and apparently not far from its breeding range.
Breeding range: Coasts and islands of the North Pacific, Bering Sea, and western Arctic Ocean. From Kodiak, the Aleutian and the Commander Islands northward throughout Bering Sea; and in the Arctic Ocean from Wrangel and Herald Islands, and Koliutschin Island, Siberia, to Kotzehue Sound and Cape Lisburne, Alaska. Recorded in summer from Kamtschatka, Kurile Islands, and Japan (Yezzo), where they probably breed.
Winter range: The open sea about the Aleutian and the Commander Islands, and probably along part of the coast of southern Alaska to Seymour Narrows and to southern Japan. In favorable seasons birds occur north to the Pribilof Islands.
Spring migration: Birds arrive on their breeding grounds, Bogoslof Island, April 26; Pribilof Islands, April 1 (fii~st taken); St. Michael, last of May (sometimes earlier); Kotzebue Sound, Chamisso Island, June 6; Point Hope, April 14 (earliest).
Fall migration: Birds leave their nesting places in Bering Sea, beginning in August, but the colonies are not deserted until the middIe of September or later.
Egg dates: Bering Sea Islands: 25 records, June 2 to September 1; 13 records, June 18 to July 12. North of Bering Strait: 7 records, July 3 to August 8; 4 records, July 6 to August 1. South of Alaska Peninsula: 6 records. June 10 to 26; 3 records, June 18 to 24.