A seabird in the big trees?

If you’ve never heard of the Marbled Murrelet, that’s a shame – because this small puffin-like bird has an amazing history, and continues to be a lightning rod for conservation through the present. For nearly 200 years, the bird was at the center of one of the great mysteries of biological study. Now, the bird is one of just a handful of species whose protection is intertwined with the future of old growth forests along the West Coast of North America (Marbled Murrelets off British Columbia, by Guy Monty).

First discovered by Russian explorers in 1789, the bird became quite popular among naturalists in the 19th Century. The Marbled Murrelet was seen regularly out over the ocean, but no one knew anything about its nesting habits. No one had seen a chick. Famed naturalist Joseph Grinnell marveled over the birds’ speed and behavior, but could learn no more. For the next 200 years, naturalists waited by the shore, interviewed Native Americans, searched the coastlines – but to no avail.

Then, finally, in 1974, came the breakthrough. A tree-trimmer named Hoyt Foster was pruning a Douglas fir in the Santa Cruz Mountains’ Big Basin Redwoods State Park (pictured above), 150-feet above the ground,  when he came across a small nest containing a fuzzy chick. He wrapped up the bird and took it to a biologist, who quickly recognized it as a Marbled Murrelet chick. Although researchers had already suspected that the seabird was nesting in forests, physical evidence was conclusive. Over time, additional nests were found, always high in old growth forests. Amazingly, this bird that spent almost its entire life on the ocean eating fish for survival, nested high in trees, sometimes as far as 50 miles from the water.

The mystery becomes an icon of conservation

Knowledge of the Marbled Murrelets’ nesting habits quickly prompted concern, particularly as battles were waged throughout the Pacific Northwest over the preservation of coastal old-growth forests. Where in the past, another bird had been at the center of the issue, the Northern Spotted Owl, the Marbled Murrelet quickly came to the forefront. This was especially the case after it was learned that habitat loss was quickly driving down the southern population of the birds. In 1988, the National Audubon Society successfully petitioned to list the genetically distinct southern population of the Marbled Murrelet (in California, Oregon, and Washington) as Threatened under the Endangered Species List (photo above by USFWS/Aaron Barna).

But the problems for the Marbled Murrelet have continued, particularly in the area where that first nest was found in 1974. While the old-growth forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains are largely protected, depredation from corvids is a serious threat to nesting success. The problem there is that trash and food left in campgrounds attracts jays, ravens and crows, which then attack the nests. Audubon California recently joined with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to pressure California State Parks to adopt a plan for Big Basin Redwoods State Park that protects Marbled Murrelets, and this effort continues.

The Marbled Murrelet is one of California’s many fascinating seabirds. Audubon California is working hard to give this bird a future on the West Coast, and we could use your help.

Information for this piece was gathered from these sources, among others:

A seabird’s secret life in revealed, Smithsonian Magazine

Marbled Murrelet, Mariner of the Old-growth




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