Marbled Murrelet – A Seabird at Risk

Marbled Murrelets make an odd conservation story. No other seabird creates a conservation problem for timber companies!

Most seabirds nest in large, seaside colonies. Not the Marbled Murrelet. This small, brown-speckled seabird species eats fish in the ocean. But each spring, it flies up to 50 miles (70 kilometers) inland to nest high in old-growth trees.

No one knows why this seabird nests so far from its hunting grounds. Despite intensive studies, scientists know very little about them. Until 1974, no one knew where they nested at all. In 1974, the first nest was finally found, high in a tree, in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

This nest stunned the world’s bird scientists. What an amazing ecological link between the ocean and the forests. And how surprising that these birds, whose heavy bodies are poorly-suited for forest flying, make daily commutes to their nests, up to 50 miles inland. They must return each day with fish for their growing chick. And when that chick fledges, its first flight must be a long, 50-mile beeline to the ocean.

Murrelets need tall, old-growth trees for nesting- only a tree 200-800 years old will have limbs broad enough for the bird’s 7-inch-wide nest. Unfortunately, these older trees are rapidly disappearing due to logging. Conservationists battled in court to protect these nesting areas. The birds’ prime habitats now have some legal protection from logging, in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

The murrelet is at risk from more than logging, however. Marine conservation issues will also affect it. For example: over-fishing, gill-net entanglement, and oil spills. Scientists are still hard at work, learning how to protect this amazing, but vulnerable, seabird.