Marbled Murrelet

Bird Alliance of Oregon has worked for decades to protect and recover the Marbled Murrelet, a small seabird which spends most of its life at sea but comes ashore to nest in mature and old growth forests. The plight of the Marbled Murrelet is synonymous with decades of industrial logging that have devastated the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

A photo of a Marbled Murrelet flying low over the water.
Marbled Murrelet, photo by Robin Corcoran/USFWS

History of Recovery and Threats to the Marbled Murrelet

In 1988, Bird Alliance of Oregon commissioned a status review that provided the basis for listing the Marbled Murrelet under the Federal Endangered Species Act. We subsequently petitioned and sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the Marbled Murrelet, resulting in the designation of the species as threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act in 1992. The species was also listed as threatened under the Oregon Endangered Species Act in 1995.

The Marbled Murrelet has moved closer to extinction in Oregon. While the Northwest Forest Plan (adopted in 1994) has provided significantly improved protection for mature and old growth forests on federal lands, weak protections on state and private forest lands have allowed continued industrial logging on lands that the Marbled Murrelet needs to survive.

In 2021 the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a petition filed by five conservation groups (including Bird Alliance of Oregon) to reclassify the Marbled Murrelet from threatened to endangered under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The uplisting required all state agencies with murrelet nesting habitat to develop management plans. While the plans are a step in the right direction they lack sufficient strength and a clear implementation strategy. 

A photo of a baby Marbled Murrelet in a mossy nest.
Marbled Murrelet chick in an Elliott State Forest, photo by Aaron Allred

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Work to Recover the Marbled Murrelet

Bird Alliance of Oregon works at a variety of levels to protect and recover the Marbled Murrelet and the forests on which they depend including:

  • Advocating for strong forest management plans on federal, state and private forests
  • Supporting protection of unprotected Marbled Murrelet Habitat
  • Opposing logging  and other activities in Marbled Murrelet habitat that could cause harm to Marbled Murrelets
  • Supporting a stronger marine reserve and marine protected area network to protect Marbled Murrelets and other seabirds
  • Advocating for strong protections for forage fish and other ocean resources on which Marbled Murrelets depend
  • Managing our own coastal sanctuary at 10-Mile Creek for Marbled Murrelets and other species that depend on mature and old growth forest
  • Building support for murrelet protection through education and outreach opportunities for people to see this secretive bird in its natural habitat

Natural History: Marbled Murrelet

Name: Marbled Murrelet

Scientific Name: Brachyramphus marmoratus

Conservation Status: Endangered in Oregon, Threatened Federally

Habitat: Marbled Murrelets nest in old-growth and mature (80 year or older) forests, usually within a few miles of the coast, though nests have been found as far as 50 miles from shore. They forage in coastal waters, staying near shore during the breeding season and sometimes venturing to the open ocean during the winter months though little is known about their winter habits.

Food: Marbled Murrelets feed primarily on small fish, like anchovies and herring, though they incorporate a wide variety of fish, plus shrimp and other crustaceans, into their diet throughout the year. Adults mostly eat the smallest fish (under 2.5”) and bring the larger fish (up to 4.5”) back to the nest to feed their young. This reduces the number of trips the birds make between the ocean forage and the inland nests, and provides their chicks with more nutrition. 

Nest Type: Marbled Murrelets don’t build nests. Instead they settle into a patch of moss, lichen or conifer needles, usually on the biggest branch of a large conifer tree in an old-growth forest. The platforms created by our native Dwarf Mistletoe species are commonly used as well.  

Behavior: Forages day and night, with peak activity during the breeding season at dawn and dusk, when prey are closer to the ocean’s surface. When not actively nesting, the birds spend most of their time swimming, loafing, or foraging on open water. Marbled Murrelets are secretive birds, so much about their courtship and nesting behavior remains a mystery!  

Description: A small, chunky seabird (about 10” long) with a short neck and tail. Breeding plumage is quite different from non-breeding plumage. In summer, adults have a chocolate brown back and mottled brown front, which provides great camouflage in the forest. In winter, adults sport a blackish back and a mostly white throat and belly, with a white collar and cheeks.

Fun Facts:

  • Like most seabirds, Marbled Murrelets are clumsy on land. But they are outstanding flyers– able to reach speeds of over 100 mph– and they can dive down more than 100 ft for prey!
  • These birds have been nicknamed “the enigma of the Pacific” because of their secretive breeding habits. The first Marbled Murrelet nest was not documented until 1974, in California’s Redwood State Park. Bird Alliance of Oregon’s very own Paul Engelmeyer discovered the first Oregon murrelet nest in 1990.
  • Marbled Murrelet chicks remain at the nest for a month or more after hatching, spending most of their time sleeping or otherwise motionless. Their first flight is an amazing and perilous journey all the way to the ocean, leaving the nest just before dark and flying nonstop from the forest to the sea.  
  • Logging and fragmentation of old-growth and mature forests has reduced the habitat of Marbled Murrelets to unsustainable levels, due to loss of nest sites and increased exposure to predators.   Let’s protect our forests!