Common Murre

Uria aalge

(c) Sandy Selesky
  • Auks, Murres, Puffins, Guillemots
  • Charadriiformes
  • Arao común
  • Guillemot marmette
Abundant, penguin-like birds of the cooler northern oceans, Common Murres can be seen sitting upright on cliffs. Though their flight appears awkward, these medium-sized waterbirds dive and swim with great agility. Their nesting colonies, on rocky sea cliff ledges, are so densely packed that incubating adults actually touch others on both sides.
(c) Glen Tepke
Appearance Description
Common Murres weigh about 2.2 pounds (990 grams), and measure about 17.5 inches in length, with a wingspan of 26 inches. Sexes look similar, with a black back and head in breeding season; white breast and underside; and a long straight dark bill. Face and throat fade to white in non-breeding season. In the Atlantic, some populations include "bridled" or "ringed" individuals, which have a white eye-ring and a white line extending backward from the eyes. Bridled birds are more common farther north.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Common Murres are widespread on the Pacific coast from Alaska to California, but more local in the east, where they are found primarily off eastern Canada. They winter at sea.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Common Murres favor cool ocean waters, both near and far from shore. They nest on coasts and islands alike—anywhere there are cliff ledges or flat, bare rocks atop sea stacks. Common Murres typically nest on wide ledges on rocky cliffs. Most Washington colonies, by contrast, are located on sea stacks and flat-topped islands that are partially vegetated or bare. Common Murres spend much of the time on the open ocean and in large bays. They are found closer to rocky shorelines during the breeding season, and farther offshore during the non-breeding season.
Common Murres, though somewhat awkward on land and in flight, are quite agile in the sea. Their diet consists of a wide variety of fish, including herring, cod, capelin, sand lance, and haddock, as well as crustaceans, marine worms, and squid They are agile surface divers that can dive more than 150 feet deep and remain submerged for up to one minute at a time. They use their strong wings to fly underwater as they pursue small schooling fish. They mostly catch small fish up to 7 inches in length, which they carry in their bills lengthwise.
Common Murres nest in large, dense colonies on rocky offshore ocean islands, often in the company of numerous other nesting birds. Murres are usually found on the upper parts of sea cliffs, below puffins and gulls but above kittiwakes and guillemots. Common Murres first breed at 4 to 5 years of age. Pairs exhibit a high degree of site and mate fidelity. Upon arrival at nest sites, they participate in courtship displays. They do not build nests. The female lays a single egg each year. Common Murre eggs are pointed at one end; when pushed, they roll around in a circle, preventing them from rolling off the nesting ledge. The variation in egg color and markings allows parent murres to recognize their own eggs when they return from sea. As many as 20 pairs may incubate in one square meter. Incubation lasts about 5 weeks; both sexes incubate and feed the newly hatched chick. Often, to prevent young chicks from jumping off the ledge prematurely, adults stand between the chicks and the cliff edge. About three weeks after hatching, before it is able to fly, the chick leaves the nest, leaps off and flutters down to the sea, a drop of up to 1500 feet. The male then escorts out the chick to sea, where he feeds and cares for it until it is independent.
Common Murres are permanent residents in many areas, but far-north populations migrate south when the water freezes. Murres off both coasts move south in winter, toward both New England and southern California waters. Washington's breeding population does not appear to migrate.
  • 18,000,000
  • 4,250,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Common Murres, dominant member of the breeding seabird community on the west coast, fluctuate annually, in response to food supply and climatic events. Population trends remain incompletely known, pieced together from different locations in different years, and from populations exhibiting different growth patterns. Many Pacific Common Murre populations have declined and partially recovered; others have failed to rebound. In central California and Washington, Common Murre populations declined substantially through the 1980s. More recently, fishery closures and reduced oil pollution have led to partial recoveries, especially at large colonies like the Farallon Islands. Murre populations in Oregon and northern California spared from gill nets and oil spills have been stable or increasing. Atlantic populations appear to be increasing as well.
Conservation Issues
Common Murres are the most frequent avian victims of oil spills on the Pacific coast, because of their low reproductive rate and concentrations in major shipping channels. However, murres have suffered major kills on every North American coast during past half century. In the1988 Nestucca spill, about 30,000 murres were killed off the Washington and British Columbia coasts; in 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska killed many more.
Other threats to Common Murres include over-fishing, gill-netting, and marine climate change. An estimated 70,000 murres were killed in gill nets in California before restrictions were imposed in 1987. Gill-netting continues today in Puget Sound. Pacific coast murres experienced further heavy declines after the 1983 El Niño event, which caused warmer, less productive ocean environments. Their recovery is complicated by eagle predation and disturbance. Common Murres are highly sensitive to disturbance by humans on foot, in boats, or in planes. Washington colonies are disturbed by low-flying aircraft, especially near military bases. Hastening to fly clear of disturbances, murres knock eggs and chicks out of the nest. Unguarded chicks and eggs are easy prey for gulls and other predators.
At Devil's Slide Rock in California, a colony of about 3,000 pairs was eliminated by the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill. In 1996, the Common Murre Restoration Project, in cooperation with Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program, and funded by the lawsuit settlement, re-established the colony using social attraction techniques such as decoys, mirrors, and recorded murre calls. From zero, the colony grew to 164 breeding pairs by 2005. By 2006, the first year without using decoys or recordings, the colony had more than 600 birds.
What You Can Do
Don't dump garbage or fishing bait off boats; this feeds competing gulls.
Join beach cleanups in your area. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent murres and other seabirds from eating it.
Don't discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. It can end up in the ocean where murres rest and feed; if their feathers become oiled, the birds are no longer waterproof and cannot survive.
Never let balloons drift off; murres can become entangled in the strings, and marine mammals can mistake the balloons for food.
Don't disturb nesting murre colonies when hiking or boating; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them.
View live Common Murres on Devil's Slide Rock in California via webcam.
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Learn more about Common Murres and their successful restoration on Devil's Slide Rock in California.
Learn about ocean conservation.
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Ainley, D. G., D. N. Nettleship, H. R. Carter, and A. E. Storey. 2002. Common Murre (Uria aalge). In The Birds of North America, No. 666 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). In The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Conservation Status References
Ainley, D. G., D. N. Nettleship, H. R. Carter, and A. E. Storey. 2002. Common Murre (Uria aalge). In The Birds of North America, No. 666 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). In The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000