Treetops to the Ocean: Marbled Murrelets

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, some rights reserved.

Marbled murrelets are full of surprises – defying all expectations of a seabird, they nest high up in redwood trees. Learn about their nest discovery in 1974 and their close ties with coast redwoods.

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Marbled Murrelets

Marbled murrelets are seabirds.

By nature of being seabirds, murrelets spend the majority of their lives out at sea in search of food. They eat mostly fish and crustaceans.

Marbled murrelets are very unique amongst seabirds in that they nest high up in redwood trees.

Most other seabirds, including their close cousins puffins and murres, nest on rocky cliffs along the shore. The marbled murrelet defies all expectations of a seabird by nesting high up in redwood trees. They will sometimes travel 30 miles inland to nest.

Their solitary nests up in old-growth trees makes them very difficult to find – a tactic that’s thought to help discourage predation. Parents will also only fly to the nest to switch who’s incubating or to feed young very early in the morning or late at night to avoid detection by predators.

Marbled murrelets are different colors in the breeding and non-breeding season to camouflage with their different habitats.

Marbled murrelets are small, robin-sized birds. They are black on top and white on bottom during the non-breeding season (any time when they’re not attracting mates or nesting).

Marbled murrelets adopt mottled brown plumage during the breeding season – a unique transition that’s not found among their close relatives. This brownish color is thought to help them camouflage with the redwood trees that they nest in.

Marbled murrelets live along the northwest coast of the United States.

Their range extends from southeastern Alaska to northern California.

The marbled murrelet is listed by the state of California as endangered.

In Oregon and Washington, the species is listed as threatened. Factors such as habitat loss, predation by other birds (namely Steller’s jays), and low food availability have affected their population.

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A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

In many California state and national parks, you’ll notice a campaign urging visitors to keep their space “crumb clean”. This movement is to discourage the number of Steller’s jays and other scavenging birds that are attracted to food that people leave behind.

Why be worried about attracting Steller’s jays, when it’s a charismatic and attractive bird? Well, in addition to eating human leftovers, Steller’s jays will also eat the eggs and young of other birds. One such species is the marbled murrelet, whose numbers are negatively affected by Steller’s jay predation.

Cool facts about marbled murrelets:

  • The marbled murrelet’s nest was discovered in 1974 by accident, when a tree climber in Santa Cruz stumbled upon its nest.
  • Marbled murrelets are the most recent species to have their nest discovered in North America.
  • Marbled murrelets are also known as “fog larks”, since their keer-keer call was heard early in the morning high up in redwood forests. It wasn’t until their nest was discovered in the 1970’s that people put together who was vocalizing.

Resources to learn more:

Logging, Crumbs, and Lost Fish: The Story of the Marbled Murrelet

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, some rights reserved.

Did you know that there’s a seabird that builds its nest high up in redwood trees? Learn about the marbled murrelet – from their breeding biology to what we think could be causing their population declines.

Cover photo: © Tom Benson, 2014, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Quick Facts

  • Marbled murrelets are seabirds that venture inland to build their nests high up in redwood trees.
  • The health of coast redwood forests affects marbled murrelet populations, since murrelets need redwood forest habitats to breed.
  • Despite considerable conservation of redwood forests, marbled murrelet numbers are still declining by 4 percent annually.
  • Scientists have found that predation by Steller’s jays attracted to campgrounds by human food is affecting marbled murrelet numbers.
  • Since murrelets are seabirds, the health of our oceans could also be impacting marbled murrelet populations.

 

The Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet

Our story begins with a mystery.

Marbled murrelets are robin-sized seabirds that are closely related to puffins and murres. As is the norm for other seabirds, scientists expected the marbled murrelet to nest in large colonies along the rocky coast. Yet no such breeding colonies of marbled murrelets were found, despite the habits of their close relatives. The nesting place of the marbled murrelet remained an unsolved mystery to ornithologists in North America for over a century.

This changed in 1974, when a worker performing maintenance at Big Basin State Park discovered a lone nest high up in a redwood tree. The nest contained a single chick, which strangely had webbed feet. He snapped a photo that was later identified by bird experts as a marbled murrelet youngster. The mystery of the marbled murrelet nesting place was solved.

Defying all expectations of a seabird, these clever nesters fly 20 miles inland to construct nests high up in the cover of redwood trees. With this discovery, the marbled murrelet became the most recent bird species to have its nest found in North America.

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A coast redwood towering over the trail at Big Basin State Park, the site of the first documented marbled murrelet nest. Old-growth coast redwoods are the nesting sites of marbled murrelets.

Logging and the Loss of Murrelets

The California Gold Rush of 1848 brought steep human population increases to the San Francisco Bay Area – and with these population increases also came a huge demand for lumber. Settlers turned to the redwood stands along California’s coast for their supply. The irresponsible logging stripped most of the old-growth redwood forest from our coastline. It is estimated that only 5% of old-growth coast redwood trees survived logging.

Coast redwoods are critical to breeding marbled murrelets. Thus, the declines of redwood forests were closely intertwined to declines in marbled murrelet populations. The low murrelet numbers recorded off our coasts resulted in their listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992. In California, they are state-listed as endangered.

The fate of the murrelets, along with other calls for the reduction of logging in the northwest, led to the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan under President Clinton. The plan protected 9.7 million hectares of old-growth forest along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Despite the protected breeding habitats, scientists monitoring murrelet populations still found that their numbers were declining. The population around California, Oregon, and Washington is continuing to decline by as much as 4 percent per year.

Crumbs, Jays, and Predation

A study at Redwood National and State Parks discovered one potential cause of the murrelet declines: predation by other birds, namely Steller’s jays.

Steller’s jays are crested blue and black birds found along the west coast of North America and south into Mexico. They are corvids, belonging to the same family as crows, ravens, and other jays. In addition to their diets of plant matter and insects, they will eat the eggs and young of other bird species.

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A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

Steller’s jays are common at campgrounds, as their varied diet is supplemented by leftover food and crumbs from humans. These “crummy” areas attract jays and increase their density, thereby increasing the chances of Steller’s jays finding and predating the nests of marbled murrelets.

Public education programs are in place to decrease the amount of food left behind by humans. The initiative’s goal is to decrease the number of murrelet predators attracted to a given area. Signs are present in parks, warning people that food waste (even as small as a single crumb) has the potential to impact marbled murrelets.

Ocean Threats Still Loom

Scientists still don’t have all of the answers to what’s causing the murrelet population decline.

One factor affecting their numbers could be the availability of food off our coast. A study in Washington found that 80% of marbled murrelet nest attempts failed due to issues relating to low prey availability.

We do know that more frequent and intense El Niño events caused by climate change are negatively impacting fish populations. El Niño is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in which the number of upwellings of nutrient-rich cold water is reduced relative to “normal” years. Plankton, a main food source for fish, rely on the nutrients from the upwellings. With no plankton to eat, the fish populations (and the seabirds that depend on them) can be negatively impacted.

What does this mean for the marbled murrelet? Our efforts on land can be executed flawlessly, but the dual-lifestyle of this enigmatic seabird makes it so that their populations can still be harmed by threats to our oceans.

Stories such as these bring to light the importance of protecting as many diverse areas as possible. A holistic approach to conservation is necessary to save species that live such diverse lives.

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A view of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

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