RAZORBILL – (Alca torda)
The Razorbill is a seabird that is part of the same family as the auks, puffins and guillemots, and is the closest living relative of the extinct Great Auk. The razorbill is all black except for its under parts, which are white. During breeding they have a thin white line from the eye to the base of the bill, and another white line across the otherwise black bill. The bill is thick and long, The feet are dark grey. Non-breeding adults have a white throat The razorbill measures approximately 40 cm (16 in.) in length.
Because of its physical similarity to a small penguin, the razorbill is called ‘Petit Pingouin’ in French, although it is not part of the same family as the penguin, nor even the same order. However its family shares some behavioral traits with the penguins, such as standing erect, having short wings and mainly using them to propel itself in the water. They also walk clumsily on land. This similarity between penguins and auks is called ‘convergent evolution’.
This bird owes its English name to the sharp edges of its bill. The Latin name ‘Alca’ comes from an Icelandic and Swedish word to mean ‘auk’, and ‘torda’ also comes from a Swedish word that means ‘auk’.
The razorbill nests in colonies on cliffs and can be found with other seabirds sharing the same breeding grounds. The nests are hidden in rock crevices. Razorbills mate for life. They feed on fish such as sand eel and can dive as deep as 120 meters (390 feet).
The razorbill does not breed on PEI, and occurrences around the island may vary from uncommon to common in the fall. As for the other seasons, only ‘accidental’ sightings have been reported so far. This seabird has increased its breeding locations in other maritime provinces such as around Cape Breton. Its main breeding range is in northern Europe along coastal cliffs, mostly around Iceland. In the winter some of the latter population will migrate as far south as off northern Africa.
Conservation: the razorbill is listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN due to a rapid decrease in its main population (Europe), notably at nesting sites in Iceland. An important factor would be a crash of the sand eel population around Iceland. The species is vulnerable to climate change, which brings more severe storms that can cause high mortality rates in those seabirds.