E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Brachyramphus marmoratus (Gmelin, 1789)
Marbled Murrelet
Family: Alcidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman

Photo of species

© Tim Zurowski  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #8156)

Distribution of Brachyramphus marmoratus in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding adult
This plumage is held from late winter/early spring (February/March) until late summer/fall (August/September, sometimes into October/November). The upperparts, including the upperwing coverts, flight feathers, and short tail are dark brown to brownish-black with rufous scapulars and rusty-brown feather edges on the back feathers. The underparts are white with heavy brown mottling (often obscuring the white feather bases), with more extensive white mottling on the undertail coverts. The underwings are wholly dark grey-brown. The head and neck are dark brown with buff and white mottling on the chin and throat and paler brown mottling on the sides of the neck. The iris is dark, the relatively short, slender, pointed bill is black, and the legs and feet are flesh-pink to dark grey.

Non-breeding adult
This plumage is held from fall (September-November) until late winter or early spring (February/March). The upperparts, including the upperwings and tail, are dark blackish-brown (often tinged with blue-grey) with extensive white mottling on the scapulars. The underparts are wholly white, extending onto the sides of the rump, except for some grey-brown flecking or mottling on the sides and flanks. The underwings are wholly dark grey-brown. The forehead, crown, ear coverts, nape, hindneck, and sides of the neck are blackish, extending onto the sides of the upper breast to form a partial collar; the lores, chin, throat, and foreneck are white and sharply contrasting, with the white wrapping up behind the ear coverts onto the sides of the nape to form a partial nuchal collar. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the breeding-plumaged adult.

This plumage is held until fall of the first year. This plumage is generally similar to that of the non-breeding adult, but black areas on the head, neck, and upperparts are browner and there is variable brownish scaling and mottling on the white areas of the throat, sides of the face, and underparts. The white mottling on the scapulars is less extensive in juvenal-plumaged birds and is often washed with brown. Bare part colouration is similar to that of adults.

Total Length: 24-25 cm
Mass: 121-269 g

Source: Nelson (1997); Sibley (2000)



The identification of this species is confounded by the similarity of its close relatives Kittlitz’s Murrelet and, especially, Long-billed Murrelet. Structurally, Marbled Murrelet is shorter-billed than Long-billed Murrelet but noticeably longer-billed than Kittlitz’s Murrelet, but these structural differences may not always be apparent on distant birds. Breeding-plumaged Marbled Murrelet can usually be distinguished from breeding-plumaged Long-billed Murrelet by its darker throat (the chin and throat of Long-billed Murrelet are usually extensively mottled with white in breeding plumage and contrast strongly with the rest of the dark brown head and neck). In addition, Long-billed Murrelet shows narrow white eye-arcs during the breeding season which are lacking in Marbled Murrelet (giving the latter an overall much darker facial pattern). Furthermore, the Long-billed Murrelet is a more uniformly brown bird that lacks the extensive rusty mottling and feather edgings on the upperparts that are present in Marbled Murrelet. In non-breeding plumage, the most characteristic difference between Marbled and Long-billed Murrelets is the entirely dark nape of the Long-billed Murrelet. In Marbled Murrelet, the white of the throat and foreneck wraps around the rear edge of the ear coverts and on to the side of the nape, nearly forming a white collar across the back of the head. In Long-billed Murrelet, however, the nape is entirely dark and the white on the head is confined to the chin and throat. In addition, Long-billed Murrelet retains white eye-arcs into the non-breeding plumage, which can help in distinguishing it from Marbled Murrelet (which lacks white eye-arcs).

Marbled Murrelet may also be confused with Kittlitz’s Murrelet, which occurs in B.C. only as a vagrant. It is quite different from Marbled Murrelet in all plumages, particularly in non-breeding plumage, but caution should nonetheless be taken when confronted with a potential Kittlitz’s Murrelet in B.C. During the breeding season, Kittlitz’s Murrelets are overall much paler than Marbled Murrelet. The breeding plumage is extensively buffy or golden-brown with dark mottling (giving the bird a ‘spangled’ appearance), and is very different from the dark, rusty-toned plumage of Marbled Murrelet. The pale colouration of Kittlitz’s Murrelet extends onto the entire head which, due to the lack of a dark cap (as is found in Marbled Murrelet), the dark eye stands out noticeably on the pale head. In flight, the white central belly and lower breast of Kittlitz’s Murrelet should be obvious (underparts of Marbled Murrelet usually extensively mottled with dark brown), contrasting with the mottled golden-brown sides and flanks. In non-breeding plumage, the head of Kittlitz’s Murrelet is primarily white, with black confined to the central crown, nape, and hindneck and extending onto the sides of the neck and sides of the breast as a partial (sometimes nearly complete) dark collar. Because of the extensively white face, the dark eye is isolated from the dark cap and is very prominent (in Marbled Murrelet, the dark eye is within the dark cap and is not obvious except at close range). Additionally, the upperparts of Kittlitz’s Murrelet are paler grey, unlike the dark slate-grey upperparts of Marbled Murrelet.

There are several other species that may be confused with Marbled Murrelet, but these species are all reasonably distinct and will only be briefly mentioned. Ancient Murrelet is found in many areas alongside Marbled Murrelet throughout the year and is the most likely confusion species. It is reminiscent on non-breeding Marbled Murrelet but is easily distinguished by its blackish face (black extending onto the ear coverts and chin) and paler grey upperparts that lack the white scapular patch. At close range, its short pale yellow bill can be seen; this is very different from the longer, more slender black bill of Marbled Murrelet. In flight, it is a chunkier species with slower wingbeats and often flies in small flocks (Marbled Murrelets usually seen singly or in pairs). Xantus’s Murrelet, which occurs as a rare vagrant on the outer coast, is similar to non-breeding Marbled Murrelet but lacks the white half-collar on the sides of the nape (white on the head confined to the throat and malar area). As well, it is wholly blackish above (lacks the white patch on the scapulars and white on the sides of the rump) and has entirely whitish (rather than dark grey-brown) underwings which are easily visible in flight.

Source: Sibley (2000)

This species is relatively vocal for an alcid. The most commonly-heard call is a high-pitched, squealing, descending keeeer or klee-ee-eer, often given in series; this call can be heard from birds at sea, from individuals flying to and from nesting areas, and from birds at nesting sites. Also gives a high, clear quip.

Source: Nelson (1997); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

Courtship and pair formation occur at sea during the spring (occasionally in winter), often when one or both individuals are still in non-breeding plumage, as well as throughout the summer. A ‘Bill-Up’ display is often performed during this courtship period, in which the male and female swim side-by-side with their bills pointed up into the air, partially lift their breasts out of the water, and then swim rapidly forward together for as long as 30 seconds. Synchronous diving by the pair also occurs during courtship, with the birds returning together to the surface after only a few seconds underwater. At dawn, and immediately preceding the ‘Bill-Up’ display, one member of the pair often engages in a ‘V-Wing’ display in which the bird half-opens its wings (forming a ‘V’) and swims alongside its mate while uttering unique buzzing calls. Other displays associated with pair formation include aerial chases (often followed by one or both birds crashing into the water and subsequently diving) and vocalizing.

Nest building begins in early March, but later nests may be constructed as late as July. Many of the details of nest building remain poorly-known in this species, but it appears that both sexes participate in selection of the nest site. Except in northern portions of its range, where it often breeds in treeless coastal tundra, most nests are situated in trees. Tree nests are built on large-diameter limbs or other platforms (such as those created by unusual tree growth due to mistletoe infestation or other disease) in old-growth or very old second-growth coniferous trees. The nest is almost always placed atop a thick cushion of moss, usually within the top one-half to one-third of the tree canopy (nest height ranges from 7-75 m). It is usually concealed from above by overhanging branches and boughs, but is open on the sides and allows horizontal access by the incoming birds. Occasionally, nests are found on the ground amongst coastal talus or on ledges on cliff faces (rarely on the ground in forested habitats). The nest is ~15-26 cm wide and ~1-8 cm deep, and is often little more than a depression in a thick cushion of moss with a lining of finer materials. Tree nests are lined with moss, lichens, needles, or small twigs, but those on the ground (especially in talus) often include rocks, soil, or herbaceous vegetation.

The breeding period of this species is rather prolonged, with individual pairs nesting asynchronously at any time between early spring and mid-summer. A single egg is laid between mid-April and late June or early July in B.C., and is incubated by both sexes for 27-30 days before hatching. The smooth, non-glossy to slightly glossy egg is pale olive-green to greenish-yellow with irregular brown, black, and purple spots (concentrated towards the larger end of the egg). Eggs are present in B.C. between mid-April and late July.

The young are semi-precocial upon hatching. Nestlings are initially covered with buffy-yellow down, except for the belly which is covered with grey or buffy-grey down (darker on the sides and flanks), with dark brown or black spots on the head and upperparts; the spots on the head are concentrated in large patches. The bill is black and the legs and feet are dark grey. The young are brooded for only 1-3 days after hatching, but are fed by both parents for the entire nestling period (28-40 days). The young fledge in juvenal plumage and fly directly from the nest to the ocean (occasionally becoming stranded en route if they are unable to reach the ocean). They are fully independent once they reach the ocean and receive no further parental care. Newly-fledged young can occur on coastal waters on B.C. as late as October.

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Baicich and Harrison (1997); Nelson (1997)
Foraging Ecology

Although occasional individuals appear on coastal lakes during the breeding season (and will occasionally consume small freshwater fish), almost all foraging occurs on the ocean throughout the year. It feeds primarily on small schooling fish such as Pacific Sandlance, Pacific Herring, smelt, seapierch, and a variety of juvenile fish, particularly during the breeding season, with marine invertebrates such as crustaceans (euphasids, mysids, amphipods, etc.) becoming more important during the winter. Pacific Sandlance is the most important prey species in much of British Columbia. Most foraging occurs in relatively shallow waters or in deeper waters where there is significant upwelling or other strong currents (such as those from tidal rips). It usually forages alone or in pairs throughout the year, capturing its prey during relatively short (20-44 seconds) dives that can reach depths of 50-60 m. During the breeding season, large numbers of fish are captured during repeated dives and then carried inland to be fed to the nestlings.

Source: Nelson (1997)


The Marbled Murrelet breeds primarily in mature and old growth coniferous forests along the coast, from sea level to montane elevations. Preferred forests have an abundance of large trees with large limbs or platforms created by mistletoe infections (‘witches brooms’), damage, diseases, or other factors, especially where thick cushions of moss or accumulations of debris form suitable nesting substrates. It has occasionally been found nesting in younger forests, although there are still usually at least a few mature or old growth trees present. Some individuals nest on sea-facing talus slopes or cliff faces, particularly in montane and alpine elevations and in northern regions. Birds are sometimes observed on coastal lakes during the breeding season, especially recently-fledged juveniles. This species feeds in the nearshore marine environment throughout the year, rarely farther than 5 km from shore. It frequents areas of turbulence and upwellings such as tidal rips, shelf edges, underwater sills, fiords, and narrow passages. It also occurs in sheltered habitats such as harbours, bays lagoons, inlets, kelp beds, and coves and tends to prefer relatively shallow waters (usually <60 m deep, rarely to 400 m deep).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Nelson (1997)


Global Range

Resident along the Pacific coast of North America from the Aleutian Islands south to central California. Some wintering birds occasionally wander south into southern California.
BC Distribution

Fairly common along the entire coast of the province, including all coastal islands, although it is rare to uncommon (and very local) around the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Breeding birds range inland as far as the western slopes of the Coast and Cascade Mountains, sometimes as far as 75 km from the ocean. Although it breeds in upland areas, all foraging is done in the marine environment and this species is fairly common in nearshore habitats throughout the breeding season.

Fairly common throughout the winter on the south coast, particularly in the sheltered waters of the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but uncommon farther north along the northern and central mainland coast on in the waters off the Queen Charlotte Islands.

This species is found in coastal waters year-round, but some birds withdraw from the northern and central mainland coast and the Queen Charlotte Islands during the winter months; the lowest numbers in this region occur in late winter and early spring. Elsewhere, populations move around during the non-breeding season to take advantage of locally abundant food sources (e.g., spawning herring, smelt runs, etc.).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b)


Population and Conservation Status

This species is closely dependent on old growth forests for breeding, and this has placed it in direct conflict with the forest industry throughout its range. Breeding populations around the Strait of Georgia have been almost eliminated as the old growth forests of this area have been replaced with second-growth plantation forests, agricultural areas, and urban environments over the past 150 years. It is also susceptible to at-sea mortality due to entanglement in gill nets. Significant declines, ranging from 40-75%, have been documented along the entire coast of North America over the past few decades, with the greatest declines along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California and in the northern Gulf of Alaska. Although it remains relatively common in many areas, this species is experiencing serious population pressures and suffering major declines. As a result of these declines and continuing pressures, it is currently recognized as red-listed (endangered) by the B.C. CDC (Conservation Data Centre) and Threatened by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).

Source: Campbell et al. (1990b); Nelson (1997)


The Marbled Murrelet is monotypic, with no recognized subspecies. It was formerly considered conspecific with the similar and closely related Long-billed Murrelet of northeastern Asia, but the two species were recently split based on differences in plumage and structure as well as genetic evidence. In fact, recent molecular and genetic information suggests that Marbled Murrelet is much more closely related to Kittlitz’s Murrelet than either is to Long-billed Murrelet. These three species are nonetheless each other’s closest relatives, however, and form a well-defined superspecies.

Source: Nelson (1997)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeS3B,S3NBlueT (May 2012)
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Notes

Read the fact sheet for this species in BC’s Coast Region: Species & Ecosystems of Conservation Concern.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-14 4:09:17 PM]
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