The Seabird and the Trees

The Marbled Murrelet is an uncommon seabird with a unique housing strategy

Chunky, small, and a little less graceful on land than at sea, the marbled murrelet is a unique resident of the Pacific Northwest. With a mighty flap, this little seabird travels far not only for its daily seafood meals but also to find nesting sites along the Pacific Coast.

The nesting habits of marbled murrelets were unknown to scientists until an accidental sighting in the 1970s. In 1974, by sheer luck, a Big Basin State Park maintenance worker spotted an odd little bird with webbed feet sitting in an old-growth tree. After taking a picture, the worker reported his findings to local ornithologists. The photo of the young marbled murrelet became the first record of its species' nesting habits and spurred new research into these unique birds.

The marbled murrelets, along with two other murrelet species, are unique members of the Alcid family. Rather than nest on cliff sides, these little seabirds travel inland into old-growth forests to find a tree with the perfect amount of moss to lay one egg each breeding season. Marbled murrelets will even fly 50 miles inland to find the perfect nesting spot. Once fully fledged, the chick will fly directly to the ocean from the nest. The young murrelets rely entirely on instinct to reach the ocean as they may have lived their entire lives far inland. Marbled murrelet nests can typically be found in a range from coastal areas of Alaska to Douglas fir forests in Washington and Oregon, and as far south as California's redwood forests.

Though opportunists, the marbled murrelet faces growing trouble as their nesting sites in the Pacific Northwest become lost to extensive logging, human-induced fires, and other destructive activities. In the San Juan Islands, many of the murrelets' habitat in old-growth forests were destroyed due to the liming industry use of the trees as fuel. While attempts have been made to conserve old-growth and older second-growth forests, the marbled murrelet still faces limited nesting locations. Hopefully, growing awareness will lead to further preservation efforts and guarantee a bright future for marbled murrelet populations.