AUKS, PUFFINS, AND MURRES – Alcidae

AUKS, PUFFINS, AND MURRES

AUKS, PUFFINS, AND MURRES FACTSS

Alcids, species in the Alcidae family, range from 6 to 17 inches (12 to 45 centimeters) in length and from 0.17 to 2.4 pounds (0.4 to 1.1 kilograms) in weight. They have narrow, short wings and short tails. Their toes are webbed. Alcids are primarily black, white, and gray in color, although some species have brown feathers during parts of the year. Males and females are similar in coloration. These birds also have a striking upright posture, one of the physical features that makes them well-suited to diving and “flying” underwater. All species are also able to fly in the air, although many need a running start to become airborne.

Bill shape varies a great deal in the group. The razorbill has a long, sharp bill. Puffins have deep bills that are laterally compressed, flattened left to right. The dovekie has a short, pointed bill. Guillemots have straight bills. The parakeet auklet has an unusual bill in which the lower half turns upward at the tip. This bill helps it catch its primary prey, jellyfish.

GEOGRAPHIC RANGE

Auks and their relatives are found in the Northern Hemisphere, in oceanic habitats in the Arctic, North Atlantic, and North Pacific.

AUKS, PUFFINS, AND MURRES HABITAT

Auks and their relatives are found in cold ocean waters. They breed in seashore areas such as shorelines, seaside cliffs, and, in some species, coastal forests.

AUKS, PUFFINS, AND MURRES DIET

Large members of the auk family, including murres, razorbills, puffins, and guillemots, eat primarily small fish. They sometimes also eat invertebrates, animals without backbones, such as squid and crustaceans. Smaller members of the family, such as the dovekie, eat primarily marine invertebrates such as crustaceans and mollusks. Many species fly far out over the ocean in search of food. Auks and their relatives capture food by resting on the surface of the water and then diving down after prey, propelling themselves forward with their wings.

BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION

Auks are capable, but not strong, fliers. Most species require a lengthy running start over water before they are able to take to the air. However, all species are very good swimmers and divers. Auks and their relatives use their wings to propel themselves through the water. Their webbed feet, which are stretched out during swimming, act as a rudder and help them change or maintain direction. Some species have been known to reach depths as great as 600 feet (183 meters).

Auks and their relatives are monogamous (muh-NAH-guhmus), a single male mates with a single female. However, the same mates are not necessarily kept from one breeding season to the next. Many individuals do, however, return to the same nesting site year after year. Eight of the twenty-three auk species mate on the open ocean. Both parents help incubate, or sit on, eggs, and both help feed and protect the young once they hatch. In most species, the female lays only one large egg which may represent 10 to 20 percent of the female’s total weight. Chicks are covered with dense down at birth and are able to see. In several species, chicks leave the nest after two or three weeks and go with their fathers to live on the open ocean until they become independent.

AUKS, PUFFINS, MURRES, AND PEOPLE

Several species are hunted in large numbers in parts of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.

CONSERVATION STATUS

The great auk became Extinct, died out, around 1844 C.E. due to hunting by humans. Several currently existing auk species are considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium-term future, including Xantus’s murrelet and the marbled murrelet. Xantus’s murrelets are threatened by habitat damage in their breeding grounds in Baja California and on islands off the coast of Southern California. They have also been affected by predators associated with humans such as cats and rats. Marbled murrelets, which occur in areas of the United States, have been affected primarily by habitat loss. Both species are listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Other members of the auk family are affected by habitat destruction and damage as well as by oil spills and fishing nets.