Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Thick-billed Murre Visits Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

A friend of mine was on the Cape last week and found this dead bird on the beach (see photo). Any idea what it is? Also, what do you think happened to it?

– Bob, Shrewsbury, MA


Good timing, Bob,

The dead bird in your friend’s photo is a Thick-billed Murre (yes, that’s the real name) and your timing with this question is perfect. I had just seen several Thick-billed Murres off of Provincetown and was thinking they would make a good topic to write about when I received your email. It was as if you could read my mind, which probably isn’t a good thing…for you. Even I don’t like what is going through my mind most of the time. How the murre ended up dead on the beach is a question I really can’t answer, at least not without more evidence. After all, this isn’t CSI Cape Cod. But based on the fact that it was found face down in the sand, I suspect it was a mob hit. But that’s just a preliminary finding.

BTW: Due to our third March blizzard in a row, I’m writing this column on a battery-powered laptop, in the dark…again. (Stupid power company.) That means, in addition to having frozen fingers, I can’t do my typical extensive research. In other words, I may have to make up some of the information this week. (I’m just kidding. I make it up every week.) Thick-billed Murres are black and white seabirds that, as the name implies, have a rather thick beak. No one knows for sure where the name “murre” came from, but some folks think it was derived from the soft purring sounds the birds make. (Purr = Murre? Yeah, I can see that, I guess.) When seen from a distance (and alive), murres look very much like penguins. Yet, unlike penguins, murres can fly in the air as well as under water. Murres are members of the auk family, which includes other well-known species such as those adorable Dovekies and the colorful puffins. Thick-billed Murres are the world’s largest auks, although it wasn’t always the case. That title used to belong to the Great Auks, but we killed off the last one of those flightless birds in 1844. Swell, eh?

As you can tell from your friend’s photograph, the feet and legs of murres are set way back on their bodies. This feature helps the birds maneuver under water, while they use their wings to propel themselves. This rear-leg design comes with a price, however. Murres aren’t very good at walking. They also struggle to take off from water and can’t take off from land at all. Therefore, murres must nest on the edges of sea cliffs, so they can simply fall into the air when they want to fly. Because of this necessity, murre nest sites are at a premium. They generally breed in crowded cliff-side colonies along the coasts of Canada, Alaska, and in the northern waters off of Russia, where many of them work as computer hackers. Most other bird species require a territory consisting of perhaps several acres or even miles, but a Thick-billed Murre’s territory is less than a foot. This is perhaps the smallest territory of any bird in the world. (Be sure to tell your friend that last piece of critical information, Bob. He’ll be impressed.)

Murres have rather short, compact wings. These small wings are great for underwater swimming, but they aren’t the best for flying. The birds have to work extra hard in order to bring food (fish) to their babies on the sea cliffs. As a result, murres aren’t able to raise large families. One chick per year is all they can handle. Each spring the female lays a single, cone-shaped egg. Being a true minimalist, she lays her egg right on the bare rock and adds no additional nesting material. Without a nest for protection the egg could easily roll off the ledge, right? Not really. Instead of rolling away, the cone-shaped egg simply rolls in a small circle and stays safe. Confused? Okay, think about this. A round bowling ball will roll away, while a bowling pin (lying on its side) tends to spin in place. I don’t know if you could follow that, but it’s the best I can do while sitting here in the dark…still.

While laying an egg on a precarious ledge might seem like a bad idea to us, it works just fine for the murres. Their worldwide population is reported to be in excess of ten million individuals. Yet, in spite of their vast numbers, Thick-billed Murres don’t really like each other. When the breeding season is over murres move out into the open ocean and become loners, usually hanging out all alone or in small flocks. It seems they need a break after spending months packed together on super-crowded breeding cliffs.

Here on Cape Cod, Thick-billed Murres are rare but regular winter visitors. But even when we do see them, they are typically just specks well off shore. Sometimes though, storms force the birds to take refuge in our sheltered bays or harbors. This is when birders, and even non-birders, run to get a good look at them. I know that doesn’t sound very exciting to you fancy Shrewsbury people, but that’s as thrilling as it gets for us this time of year.

I can’t really say for sure what happened to the murre in your friend’s photo, Bob. It could have died of natural causes or became a victim of our recent string of storms. But more than likely it succumbed to hypothermia, probably after days of sitting alone in the dark, waiting for the power to come back on. There’s been a lot of that going on here lately.