COMMON MURRE – (Uria aalge)
The Common Murre (or Common Guillemot) is a seabird part of the auk family, which also includes the puffins. They look like penguins, but are not related to them. The common murre is an excellent diver that pursues its fish prey underwater using their wings for swimming, and can reach down to depths of some 170 meters (560 feet). They do not fly well however, and stand upright when on land.
This species measures around 45 cm (16 in.) and is mostly black during the breeding season, with white under parts. The pointed bill, eyes and legs are black. There is sometimes a thin white eye ring that continues as a fine line below the eye, as if the bird was wearing a monocle. Both sexes are similar. Outside the breeding season the throat and cheeks are white.
The English name ‘Murre’ might have an onomatopoeic origin, as it resembles the bird’s call. The Latin name ‘Uria’ is from Greek and would refer to ‘a dark water bird’, and ‘aalge’ is from Danish and means ‘an auk’.
Although feeding mostly on fish, common murres will also catch crustaceans and other sea invertebrates. They nest in colonies on rocky shorelines and cliffs, and do not build a nest. The breeding areas are very dense, to the point where incubating parents can touch each other. The eggs show very different colors and spot patterns, which help parents recognize theirs. The conical shape of the egg also prevents it from falling off the ‘nesting’ site, instead it will roll in a circle.
The common murre does not breed on PEI. Its overall breeding range covers Arctic coastlines around the globe. There have been ‘rare’ to ‘uncommon’ sightings of this bird on the island in the fall however, during migration. They spend the winter along the coasts in North America, Europe and Asia where the water does not freeze.
Conservation: although vulnerable to oil spill pollution and fishing with gill nets, the global population of the common murre appears stable. In the Maritimes breeding colonies were extirpated about 100 years ago by hunting and egg harvesting. A few colonies still exist on rocky islands in the Bay of Fundy, and the only way they can survive egg predation by large gulls is by nesting under large rocks. Common murres are vulnerable to human disturbances in their colonies, either from rock climbers or birders, leaving their nests and chicks when frightened. The latter then become easy targets for gulls and other birds of prey.
Guillemot eggs as human food: this bird’s eggs are sold in markets in some European countries and are considered a delicacy. The photo below was taken at a market in Iceland.