Marbled Murrelet

A unique and threatened seabird

Marbled murrelets (Brachyramphus marmoratus) are small seabirds that nest in old-growth forests and feed in the Pacific Ocean. Murrelets need large areas of coastal and near coastal old-growth forest for nesting. They avoid fragmented and partially developed forest landscapes, and are declining rapidly in Washington and listed as a state Endangered species. Marbled murrelets are listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Marbled murrelet: Photo Rick Bowers / Audubon

“We have a responsibility to restore old-growth forests and help marbled murrelet populations recover within Washington,” said Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director with Conservation Northwest. “We can ensure jobs and wildlife over the long run if we manage our state forests sustainably.”

News on marbled murrelets

Finding solutions for murrelets and coastal communities

Our state’s DNR lands are vital for murrelet recovery. Their relatively close proximity to marine areas provides a shorter and less risky commute between nesting and foraging areas. State forests are also typically more productive than ones at higher elevation further inland in national forests and national parks, growing more rapidly into the habitat murrelets need. Most importantly, scientists emphasize that protecting existing habitat in the near-term is essential to keep murrelets on the landscape, at least until degraded habitat on federal lands recovers.

Murrelets depend on large old trees for nesting like these in Olympic National Park, laying their eggs on wide, moss-covered branches. Photo: Chase Gunnell

While the Revised Draft Conservation Strategy proposed by DNR considers eight options, only two are projected to allow for murrelet populations to increase over time. All of the others are expected to reduce murrelet numbers on state lands, which will further imperil their survival in Washington. To recover these special birds, DNR must protect all murrelet nesting habitat, prevent habitat fragmentation, and conduct restoration forestry to improve degraded areas and generate revenue.

It won’t be easy. The forests that murrelets need for survival are also looked at as logs for mills, jobs in the woods and income to rural counties and coastal communities. For example, rural counties in southwest Washington depend on revenue from the proceeds of logging on DNR lands for a significant portion of their budgets, funding basic services such as roads, hospitals and libraries. This reliance on the same remaining patches of older forest that murrelets need can set counties and timber mills up against conservationists and the general public, who have a strong interest in wildlife and wildlands protection.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has convened a Solutions Table on Marbled Murrelets to break these old patterns and find creative ways to meet the habitat needs of the murrelet, the income needs of rural counties, and the employment needs of timber mills and other economic sectors in these communities.

Loggers versus endangered birds is a false choice. We believe Washington can do better. Wildlife protections and healthy rural communities can coexist.

We are actively participating in the Solutions Table, contributing fresh ideas backed with murrelet biology and ecological economics expertise. We are also sharing lessons we have learned from working collaboratively with rural communities on wolf recovery and through the Wolf Advisory Group.

While the Solutions Table is working, we are actively promoting the most scientifically sound alternative for DNR’s Long Term Conservation Strategy for murrelets, and one that meets the intent of the Endangered Species Act. Read more from our October 2018 blog.

Amazing avian

Murrelets require old, mature forest habitat for their nests. They are known to travel long distances inland to a nest tree (the longest recorded commute in Washington is 145km!), selecting old-growth, craggy-topped conifers on which to lay their eggs.

Marbled murrelets have declined by almost 30 percent since 1992. That’s steep. Despite federal public land protections, in Washington state murrelets’ old forest habitat has declined by more than 10 percent, notably on state and private lands.

A murrelet sits on its nest in the crook of a large tree branch.

In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed marbled murrelet as a threatened species in Washington, Oregon, and California in response to steep declines in the abundance and distribution of their old-growth habitat. Murrelets also face other threats: nest predation by crows and ravens, and reduced quantity and quality of the small forage fish that they prey on due to changing ocean conditions.

Conserving old forests protects murrelets and hundreds of other species of wildlife in Washington’s coastal areas. The Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests help mitigate climate change by storing more carbon than most other forests in the world. We’re working with other conservation groups to ensure that murrelets, and their amazing old forest habitat, get the protections they need! 

More murrelet facts

  • The marbled murrelet is a small native seabird along the Pacific Northwest Coast from northern California to central Alaska, with a slender black bill and plumage that varies in color by season.
  • Murrelets feed in the Pacific ocean and Salish Sea, sometimes venturing far from shore in search of  herring, anchovies, smelt, sandlance, eels and other small forage fish.
  • Unlike most other seabirds, marbled murrelets are solitary; they do not form dense colonies.
  • Murrelets require old, mature forest habitat for their nests. They are known to travel up to 50 miles inland to a nest tree, selecting old-growth, craggy-topped conifers on which to lay their eggs.
  • Murrelets lay a single egg on natural, moss-covered platforms where large branches join the tree trunks of old growth Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and redwood trees.
Learn more about marbled murrelets and threats facing them in this video from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service!