The Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia) is also known in most English speaking parts of the world outside of North America as the Brünnich’s Guillemot, although the very darkly black-backed birds of the North Pacific are called the Pallas’ Murre. It is closely related and similar to the Common Murre (U. aalge). Both species are found along northern coastlines of both hemispheres of the northern hemisphere, but the Thick-billed has a more northern range, with most of its population breeding well above the arctic circle, while a relatively small portion of the Common’s breeding range reaches that far north. In Atlantic Canada hunters don’t distinguish between the two species and call them both turrs. There is a daily bag limit of forty, although enforcement is impractical in areas where the species is hunted and tales of massive shoots abound, while a black market for them exists among ex-pat Newfoundlanders.
Thick-billed Murres nest in colonies, often in very huge numbers, over a million birds in some instances. They have the smallest nesting “territory” of any bird, requiring about one square foot of space, so that parts of some colonies can be quite tightly packed together. They nest on ledges on cliffs overlooking ocean waters that must be below 8o Celsius (about 46.4o Fahrenheit), and except when nesting, they spend their lives in or flying over water that cold. They eat mostly fish, but also small numbers of other marine species, such as crustaceans.
Because they can be seen in such huge numbers in remote areas there is little conservation concern for them, but perhaps there should be. For one thing they have the highest ratio of energy expanded in flying, measured against their mass, of any animal. Both parents incubate and tend the young, but can feed the single chick one fish at a time. Both adults feed the single chick, but only one fish at a time. After about eighteen to twenty-five days the chick will, at dark, jump off the ledge toward the water, followed by one of the parents, sticking close. The male then will accompany the chick, at sea, for about another eight weeks. The older, thus more experienced, the parents, the greater the likelihood of the chick surviving.
All of this means that they need a steady supply of the right species of cold-water marine life available through the year. That is not happening, and even as I was writing this, reports came in of large numbers of murres washing ashore in Newfoundland (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/hampden-dead-seabirds-1.6404952). While cause of death was not known for sure, starvation was suspected, and at the same time there were reports of massive declines in once astronomical numbers of herring on the west coast. If climate change continues at its current rate the extinction of this species seems inevitable, and unlike the iconic Polar Bear, it is unknown to most people. This 16 by 34 inch painting is in oils on a birch panel mounted on a basswood backing, and is approximately life size.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
Purchase, print, product info: https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/barry-mackay
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada