Razorbill

Alca torda

(c) Bill Scholtz
  • ALCIDAE
  • Auks, Murres, Puffins, Guillemots
  • Charadriiformes
  • Alca común
  • Petit pingouin
Introduction
The stocky, heavy-billed Razorbill is the closest living relative of the extinct Great Auk. One of the rarest of all breeding seabirds in the United States, Razorbills are strong fliers, more agile in flight than many related species. Razorbills can dive several hundred feet and swim underwater, propelled by their wings. On shore they can walk upright like penguins. The oldest known Razorbill was a female banded as a nestling in 1962 and found breeding in 2000—38 years later.
(c) Bill Scholtz
Appearance Description
Razorbills weigh about 1.6 pounds, and measure about 17 inches in length, with a wingspan of 26 inches. Sexes look similar, with a large head, short neck, and a thick, laterally compressed black bill marked with a vertical white line near the tip. In breeding plumage, a thin white line extends from the base of the bill to the eye. The back, head, and legs are black, and the underside is snowy white, coming to a point on the throat during the breeding season, and extending up to the chin otherwise. The long, pointed black tail points upward in the water, and imparts a streamlined shape in flight.
Range Map
Courtsey Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
Although the bulk of the world population breeds in Iceland, Razorbills are widely distributed throughout the North Atlantic. Colonies extend east through northern Europe and northwestern Russia. In the northwest Atlantic, Razorbills breed mainly in small colonies scattered from northwestern Greenland, south through the Atlantic provinces of Canada to Maine, where more than 400 pairs nest on at least six islands. Most Razorbills from North American colonies overwinter south of their breeding range in ice-free, coastal waters, favoring shoals in the outer Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine. In winter, Razorbills occur south to Long Island, New York, and New Jersey.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Razorbills tend to forage in the cool, relatively shallow waters over offshore ledges and shoals. Colonies nest on islands or on mainland cliffs and rocky shorelines.
Feeding
Excellent divers that feed mainly on schooling fish, Razorbills typically feed at ocean depths of 30 to 60 feet, but are known to dive up to 400 feet. Several fish may be caught in a single dive; fish may also be stolen from other auks. In North America, important prey species vary with location and season, and include capelin, herring, and sand lance. In 2006, a study of razorbill diets in Maine found that Atlantic herring made up 60% of the diet, hake made up 27% of the diet, and other fish made up the remaining 13%. Crustaceans and marine worms are also important in adult diets, the former especially in winter.
Reproduction
Razorbills breed on rocky islands and steep, mainland cliffs. Most use nest sites that are at least partly enclosed, often in crevices among boulders or abandoned burrows of other species. As is typical of marine birds, Razorbills are colonial and mostly monogamous, with strong mate and nest-site fidelity, although females will sometimes mate with other males. Courtship displays include bill pointing, growling, bowing, and mutual preening. Breeding begins at four or five years of age; the nest is built by both parents. One, or rarely, two white to tan or greenish eggs marked with brown are incubated by both parents for about 35 days. Hatched nestlings receive several feedings daily, each consisting of several fish, which the adult bird holds crosswise in its bill while transporting them to the nest. After about 18 to 20 days in the nest, the male parent accompanies the chick to sea. At nest departure, the chick weighs less than one-third of its adult mass and has not yet begun to grow its large wing and tail feathers; chicks complete their maturation at sea. This unusual "intermediate" developmental strategy is similar to that of Common and Thick-billed murres, the Razorbill's closest living relatives.
Migration
Razorbills disperse widely after breeding, wintering far offshore from Newfoundland to southern New England, and rarely, as far south as Florida. European birds may winter as far south as northwest Africa. Winter distribution depends upon weather and food supply.
  • 1,500,000
  • 114,000
Population Status Trends
Razorbill populations are thought to be stable or increasing throughout most of their global range, including at major sites in Labrador, and in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries along the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Increases are also reported in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, and in Maine. New colonies are established periodically in the Gulf of Maine, probably representing the recolonization of former nesting islands. Although North America supports only about 7% of the world Razorbill population, current conditions appear favorable for the birds there, though declines in some areas may reflect increased pollution in the North Atlantic. The Razorbill is a "continentally threatened species," and ranked by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "bird of conservation concern."
 
An explanation of the Annual Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
Heavily persecuted by humans for their eggs, meat, and feathers, Razorbill populations were reduced or extirpated across their northwest Atlantic breeding range by the early 1900s. Although legally protected here since 1917, the species has been slow to recover.
 
 
Due to their near-shore habits, oil spills represent a serious threat to Razorbill populations; 14% of the birds killed in the Argo Merchant oil spill off Nantucket Island in 1976 were Razorbills. Entanglement in fishing gear and bycatch of juvenile Razorbills is a primary cause of mortality in the Baltic Sea. Gill netting by lumpfish and Atlantic cod fisheries kill significant numbers of Razorbills. Development, recreation, timber harvesting, aquaculture, and disturbance on seabird islands also impact Razorbills.
 
 
Many Razorbill colonies in Quebec and New Brunswick have been protected as Migratory Bird Sanctuaries since 1925. Similarly, many Razorbill colonies in Newfoundland and Labrador are protected as Seabird Ecological Reserves. Access to these areas is by permit only. In 1978, the Canadian Wildlife Service and Québec-Labrador Foundation developed a management plan aimed at restoring seabird populations. Beginning in 1993, heightened enforcement of existing hunting regulations and greater education about seabird issues were initiated to reduce the incidental take of Razorbills during the legal fall hunt of Thick-billed Murres.

The Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge identifies and protects significant habitats for marine species, including Razorbills. National Audubon Society's Seabird Restoration Program protects Razorbills at Matinicus Rock, Maine's largest colony. This colony is increasing: 136 pairs nested in 2000, but by 2006, there were 291 pairs.

What You Can Do
Cut up monofilament fishing line, which can entangle seabirds, prior to discarding it.
 
Reduce your use of fossil fuels and don't discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. Transporting fuel inevitably results in oil spills, which can end up in the ocean where Razorbills rest and feed; if their feathers become oiled, the birds are no longer waterproof and cannot survive.
 
Don't dump garbage or fishing bait off boats; this feeds gulls that compete with Razorbills.
 
Join beach cleanups in your area. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent Razorbills and other seabirds from eating it.
 
Never let balloons drift off; Razorbills can become entangled in the strings, and marine mammals can mistake the balloons for food.
 
Don't disturb nesting Razorbill colonies when hiking or boating; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them.
 
Make environmentally-friendly seafood choices, which helps protect fish that Razorbills and other seabirds depend upon. Learn more at http://seafood.audubon.org/ or http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page
More Information
Learn more about ocean conservation.
 
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Hipfner, J. M., and G. Chapdelaine. 2002. Razorbill (Alca torda). In The Birds of North America, No. 635 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Shannon, Paula. Annual Report from Matinicus Rock. Audubon Seabird Restoration Program. Ithaca, New York, 2006
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Conservation Status References
Hipfner, J. M., and G. Chapdelaine. 2002. Razorbill (Alca torda). In The Birds of North America, No. 635 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
 
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996
 
Shannon, Paula. Annual Report from Matinicus Rock. Audubon Seabird Restoration Program. Ithaca, New York, 2006
 
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000