Bay Area ‘Penguins’: Common Murres

Cover photo: © Mick Thompson, 2016, some rights reserved.

Did you know that common murre eggs each have a distinct speckled pattern? This is thought to help parents recognize them in the midst of crowded breeding colonies. Learn this and more in our post about this fascinating seabird!

Cover photo: © Mick Thompson, 2016, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.


Places to See Common Murres

Common murres look a bit like penguins.

During the breeding season (summer), common murres are mostly white in front with black on the head and rest of the body. When they are not breeding, their heads have white on the neck and cheek.

Common murres live on the west and east coasts of North America.

Out west, common murres live along the coast from California up north to Alaska. Out east, their population is mostly around the coast of Canada.

Common murres are seabirds, meaning that they spend the majority of their lives out at sea.

Common murres are seabirds, meaning that they spend almost all of their lives out at sea in search of food. They will only return to land for brief period of time in the summer to lay eggs and raise their young. The young return to the ocean when they are old enough to enter the water.

Common murres eat a variety of sea life.

Their menu includes fish, crustaceans, squid, and marine worms. They catch their meals by diving under the ocean surface, sometimes reaching depths of 150 feet.

Common murres nest on rocky cliffs and islands.

Common murres nest in colonies, meaning that multiple birds of the same species will build nests close to one another in a given area. Common murres have the most densely-packed colonies of any species for its size, and breeding birds will sometimes have other individuals touching it on all sides.

Image result for common murre egg
Common murre egg; Source: Wikimedia Commons

Common murres don’t build “proper” nests; rather, they lay their egg directly on bare rock. This species lays a single egg, which has an intricate, speckled pattern and is very pointy on one end. Once the egg hatches, both parents will spend time feeding the young. At about 30 days of age, the young murre is able to enter the water. The parents spend several more weeks caring for the young bird at sea.

Common murres are very susceptible to population damage from oil spills.

By nature of being seabirds, oil spills drastically affect common murres. In the Bay Area, the 1986 Apex Houston spill and the 1998 Command spill killed thousands of birds and eliminated the population of common murres on Egg Rock at Devil’s Slide (Pacifica, Ca). Restoration of the birds at Egg Rock commenced in 1996, and the site is still being monitored today.

Common murres are one of many species affected by intense El Niño events.

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 that seabirds depend on.

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 thus puts strain on the seabird populations that rely on fish.

Cool facts about common murres:

  • Scientists speculate that the reason their eggs are so pointy is to avoid them rolling off cliff edges, since the eggs are not contained in nests.
  • The intricate speckled patterns on common murre eggs are thought to act as a “fingerprint” so that eggs can be individually recognized by parents.

Resources to learn more:

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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