Photo: Murres atop a rock

Thick-billed and thin-billed murres rest on a rock in the sun on Gull Island in Alaska. Thick-bills are recognizable not just by their slightly heavier bills but also by the white line down the sides of the bill.

Photograph by Michael Melford

Map

Map: Thick-billed murre range

Thick-Billed Murre Range

Fast Facts

Type:
Bird
Diet:
Carnivore
Average life span in the wild:
Up to 25 years
Size:
18 in (45 cm)
Weight:
26 to 52 ounces (750 to 1,481 g)
Group name:
Colony
Size relative to a 6-ft (2-m) man:
Illustration: Murre compared with adult man

The thick-billed murre swims far better than it flies. Takeoff is awkward, but once it's airborne, it can fly at about 75 miles an hour (120 kilometers an hour). Among the deepest underwater divers of all birds, it uses its stubby wings to "fly" through the water, routinely reaching depths of more than 330 feet (100 meters)—sometimes even twice that—in pursuit of the fish, squid, and crustaceans it feeds on.

Covered in black feathers on its head, back, and wings and white feathers on its breast and underside, this waterbird can be found in and around Arctic waters. In the summer it breeds off the rocky coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. But in winter—when it's not breeding—the thick-billed murre is at sea, off the edge of open ice southward to Nova Scotia and northern British Columbia. It also winters off the coasts of Greenland, northern Europe, and southward in the Pacific Ocean to northern Japan.

The thick-billed murre doesn’t build nests. Instead, the female joins others of her species in a large, noisy colony and lays a single egg on a narrow cliff ledge. She then arranges pebbles and other debris close to the egg, cementing them with feces to form a support that prevents the large egg from rolling off the ledge if it dislodges. The egg hatches in 30 to 35 days. Both parents feed the chick, caring for it until it fledges at about 21 days old. At this time, chicks make a migratory journey that is unique among birds, swimming as far as 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in the first leg to their wintering grounds off the coast of Newfoundland.

Although thick-billed murre numbers are generally healthy, the birds are vulnerable to oil spills and gill-netting. Each year in a traditional food hunt, native people in Canada shoot the birds near breeding colonies. Others are hunted during their migration from the coast of Greenland.

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