Social Attraction: The Story of California’s Common Murres

Cover photo: © 2012, Tim Lenz, some rights reserved.

The story of the decline of a California seabird, and its recovery using decoy birds, speakers, and mirrors.

Cover photo: © 2012, Tim Lenz, Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.

Quick Facts

  • Common murres are seabirds, spending most of their time out at sea in search for food.
  • By nature of being seabirds, murres are especially susceptible to threats to marine environments like irresponsible fishing practices and oil spills.
  • The culmination of improper fishing and oil spills dramatically decreased the population of common murres in Northern and Central California.
  • Social attraction techniques, which work to “trick” birds into returning to a nesting site, were successfully used to restore common murre populations that faced declines.
  • Common murres and other seabirds are still threatened by climate change, which are making El Niño events more intense.


Although tied up in a ponytail, my hair whipped back and forth in the strong breeze along the steps down to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. Despite the wind and the occasional cold gust, the site was rewarding in its incredible views of California’s coast. While hiking, I couldn’t help but catch a whiff that was undeniably seabird in origin. With my interest piqued, I scanned the coastline with my binoculars to find a colony of common murres dotting the white rocks below.

A Population in Decline

The common murre is a sleek and gorgeous seabird found on both coasts of North America. In California, murres form large breeding colonies in areas along the North and Central coast. As a seabird, the common murre spends most of its time on the water. Consequently, its time spent out in the ocean in search for food or resting make the common murre particularly susceptible to population declines from harmful marine fishing practices and marine oil spills.

Image result for gillnet diagram
Gillnet diagram; Source: University of Michigan

The culmination of events such as these led to a serious decline in California’s common murre population. The use of gillnets, a net that forms a large, vertical wall under the ocean surface, led to entanglement and resulting decline of common murres. Oil spills, such as the 1986 Apex Houston spill and the 1998 Command spill, contributed to declines as well, killing thousands of birds and eliminated the population of common murres on Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide in Pacifica, CA.

Social Attraction Leads to a Recovery

The declines that the common murres faced called for action. In 1996, that call was met by the formation of the The Common Murre Restoration Project by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with other organizations. The project’s primary goal was to restore the Devil’s Slide Rock population that was wiped out during the oil spill, and increase numbers of common murres and other seabirds across Central California.

This behemoth effort begs us to question — how does one simply restore a population of seabirds? As it turns out, methods to achieve this task have been developed by Dr. Stephen Kress and have proven successful in other bird populations. The method’s idea is elegant: by tricking birds into thinking that other individuals of the same species are already present at a specific location, we can incentivize the breeding birds set up their nests at that location.

These methods are termed “social attraction”, and include an entire suite of different ways to attract breeding birds back to the site. Chick placement at a specific location can work to have the growing birds imprint on the location, causing them to return to that site to breed as adults. The placement of decoys (think the fake ducks used for hunting) and speakers set up to play the calls of the target bird species can work to make it seem like birds of the species are already present at the location, enticing live birds to reside there as well. Mirrors can also be used to attract birds, as they create the illusion of movement and more individuals to birds flying overhead.

A visual of Dr. Kress’s “social attraction” techniques; Source: Audubon

Social attraction has been used in many seabird restoration projects, and has proven  time and time again to be a success (my personal favorites include Project Puffin and the Tern Restoration Project in Maine). Thus, it makes sense that these methods gave new hope to the Common Murre Restoration Project at Devil’s Slide Rock.

For the project, they placed common murre decoys on the island, played common murre sounds from speakers at the site, and placed mirrors around the area with the hopes that these would attract more birds to the site. And the result? The murre breeding colony on Devil’s Slide Rock has been increasing every year since the implementation of the social attraction techniques in 1996. The population in Point Reyes has also increased since the Common Murre Restoration Project began. Thus, the work with common murres off the coast of California is another recorded conservation success story using social attraction techniques.

A Threat Still Looms

Despite the common murre’s population recovery due to conservation efforts, threats to their population still remain.

El Niño events are naturally-occurring phenomena, in which the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Fish depend on this cold water upwelling, as the plankton that they eat are associated with the nutrient-rich waters. El Niño events, in turn, can affect the fish populations which seabirds depend on.

Climate change is disturbing the natural ebb and flow that marine ecosystems experience with El Niño: climate change is linked to more intense El Niño events, making these events much more serious. More serious El Niño events puts more strain on fish populations, and as a consequence puts strain on the seabird populations that rely on those fish. The common murre is just one of those seabirds affected – a call to action for our entire planet to heed attention to the serious danger that climate change poses to all life on Earth.

In light of this, it becomes increasingly important each day to think critically about conservation concerns that our local species are facing – especially in light of the world’s changing climate. That said, it is also important to stop and smell the roses with conservation successes, for hope from these sweet victories are what drive present and future generations of activists.

In that moment at Point Reyes, gazing out at the rocky coast dotted with loud murres, I felt the surge of awe and excitement that comes with a bird that’s made an incredible comeback. I truly stopped to smell the roses, but in this case, it smelled like fish, salt, and seabird.

© 2010, Allen Shimada, NOAA Photo Library (Flickr), some rights reserved.


Author: Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her husband and their two indoor cats (Max and Penelope).

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