This painting shows a pair of Razorbills (Alca torda), with their chick, and a single Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), on a cliff overlooking the North Atlantic where both species nest, often in colonies and at times in proximity to each other and other seabirds. Both species are members of the family Alcidae, which contains such a diversity of species names (auks, puffins, murres, murrelets, auklets and guillemots) that they are collectively referred to as “Alcids”. Alcids are restricted to the northern hemisphere. Razorbills, also called Razor-billed Auks, are northern seabirds that nest in crevices and openings, back from the edges of cliff ledges. It takes a few years to reach breeding age, and the pair bond is life-long. They only lay a single egg. Typical of Alcids, they normally only come ashore to nest, spending the rest of their time at sea.
I included a neighbour, an Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica), which also nests on both sides of the North Atlantic, often on island flatlands, back from the cliffs, in burrows and deep crevices. It is famous for the droll expression imparted by its improbably large beak, responsible for its colloquial name, sea parrot. Both species have drabber, less sharply patterned winter plumages, and in the winter the puffin sheds the outer layer of beak, which grows back by spring.
Alcids are “obligate” consumers of seafood, meaning fish and other marine species. They may show up inland on large bodies of water, but depend on a viable oceanic environment for their survival. They are noted for “die-offs” when large numbers of birds die and wash ashore, the cause of their demise not always apparent. But the forces arrayed against are formidable. Some are hunted, or collected as nestlings for food, although in most of their range they are protected from sport hunting. Far more serious threats include anything that alters the sea’s ability to support viable amounts of marine life that is accessible to the birds. These threats include changes in water temperature (warming water loses oxygen and has less biomass than cold water, Razorbills can’t thrive in seas warmer than a chill 15 Celsius); oil spills (it is not the huge oil spills that make the news that kill most, but the steady leak of floating oil and other toxicants from ships and machinery); entanglements in fishing gear, including “ghost nets” that break loose and drift about the seas just below the surface; dredging, which destroys breeding habitat for many organisms that form the foundation of food chains; over-fishing; red tides and eutrophication; and the ubiquitous presence of plastics and microplastics. The largest Alcid known was also a North Atlantic species, the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), a flightless bird that became extinct by the middle of the 19th century, although it was once numerous.
Alcids fascinate me. I love painting them. This painting is in oils on compressed hardboard (acid-free Masonite) and is 24 by 28 inches, the birds approximately life-size.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
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Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada