The winter plummage of the marbled murrelet is black above and white below. Photo: Bob Whitney

Responsible habitat management is a defining characteristic of private forest stewardship in British Columbia.

To help small-forest owners be the best forest stewards they can be, we’ve put together some information about species of interest on the coast of British Columbia.

Because our 2-part series “Everything You Need to Know About Northern Goshawks” was a success, we’ve followed up with a second 2-part series all about the mysterious marbled murrelet.

In this first post we introduce some defining characteristics of the species and briefly explain why, as a forest owner or land manager in British Columbia, it’s important to pay close attention to the marbled murrelet.

Why Do Marbled Murrelets Matter?

Presently, marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) are blue-listed by the BC Conservation Data Centre (you can learn more about what it means to be on the blue list from the B.C. Ministry of Environment website).

The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is also listed as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) — a federal committee that assesses and designates which wildlife species are in danger of disappearing from Canada.

The federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) also lists the marbled murrelet as a Schedule 1 threatened species. In 2014, a federal recovery strategy was published with an addendum scheduled for completion in 2016.

The Basics: What is a Marbled Murrelet?

The marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) is a small, plump seabird, about 25 centimetres long with a short, pointed tail and bill.

Marbled murrelets spend most of their lives on the water in near-shore marine environments (within 0.5 km of shore).

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the marbled murrelet as “a chunky Pacific seabird, unique among its puffin relatives because it makes its nest high up in large coastal trees.”

The marbled murrelet belongs to the auk family or Alcidae. In British Columbia, the only other seabird of similar size and shape is the ancient murrelet.

Where do Marbled Murrelets live?

Marbled murrelets are found in coastal waters and adjacent inland areas from the Aleutian Islands (low numbers) through southern and southeastern Alaska, B.C., Washington, Oregon, and central California.

In Canada, marbled murrelets are found only on the Pacific coast. The current Canadian population (estimated at 99,100 birds) is about 28% of the estimated global total of 357,900 birds.

Marbled murrelets require both terrestrial and marine habitats. Like most seabirds, the marbled murrelet spends most of its life on the ocean and only comes on land to breed.

Marbled murrelets nest as solitary pairs at low densities, typically in coniferous, old-growth forests within 50 km of the coast and below 800m elevation.

What do Marbled Murrelets Look Like?

marbled murrelet

Marbled murrelets during breeding season. Photo: Knut Hansen

Male and female marbled murrelets are the same size (9.4–9.8 in or 24–25 cm) and have similar colouring.

In winter, the marbled murrelet plumage is black above and white below.

During breeding season, the plumage on the top of the head, back and wings are dark brown, while the throat, chest and abdomen are brown flecked with white and cinnamon (giving a mottled or “marbled” appearance).

Marbled murrelets beat their stubby wings rapidly when they fly through the air. This, combined with their zigzag flight pattern, has inspired some observers to describe the marbled murrelet as “an oversized bumblebee.”

Murrelets have small, webbed feet they use to paddle when they’re on the surface of the water. Underwater, murrelets demonstrate great speed and agility—using their muscular wings as flippers and their feet for steering, they essentially “fly” underwater.

What do Marbled Murrelets Sound Like?

The characteristic call of the marbled murrelet is a high-pitched “keer-keer” (a lot like a gull) used for communication between individuals and most often heard around dawn or dusk as the birds fly to and from their nests.

Please stay tuned for the next post in our 2-part marbled murrelet series with information about:

  • Habitat requirements
  • Identifying nests
  • Understanding breeding habits

A big thanks to Molly Hudson, biologist with TimberWest, for her expertise in helping us put this information together.