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Razorbill

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Razorbills

Razorbills

USFWS

The razorbill is the northern auk species most closely related to the great auk, which was hunted and exploited to extinction in the 1850s. Today, these seabirds are a Northern Hemisphere counterpart to penguins with their pied plumage and strong swimming capabilities, though unlike penguins, they are also powerful fliers.

Common Name:

Razorbill

Scientific Name:

Alca torda

Scientific Family:

Alcidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick, black, arched culmen, flattened on the sides with vertical ridges, white line across tip
  • Size: 16-18 inches long with 26-inch wingspan, large head, long tail compared to other auks
  • Colors: Black, white, gray, yellow
  • Markings: Genders are similar though males are slightly larger than females. The countershaded plumage is black above and white below, with a black hood and upperparts and plain white underparts, including the undertail coverts, and the white comes to a point on the bird’s throat. The face is marked with a thin white line that extends from the top of the bill to the eye, and a thin white wing bar marks the back of the wings. In winter, the division between white and black coloration is less clearly defined, with blurry edges on the whiter throat and whitish-gray auriculars. The facial line disappears in winter. In flight, the wingpit is white and is framed by a dark trailing edge on the wings. The inside corner of the bill may show yellow but is difficult to see. The legs and webbed feet are black.

    Juveniles are similar to non-breeding adults but have a smaller bill and less defined markings.

Foods:

Fish, squid, crustaceans (See: Piscivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

These auks are found in the North Atlantic from North America to Greenland and Scandinavia. During the breeding season they prefer rocky islands and steep cliffs further north, but after the breeding season they disperse further out to sea and expand their range further south, though popular breeding areas are occupied year-round. They can be seen as far south as North Carolina and Virginia in North America and Spain, Portugal and northern Africa in Europe.

Vagrant sightings are often recorded much further south after storms, and razorbills are occasionally recorded slightly inland after unusual weather as well.

Vocalizations:

These auks have a harsh, raspy grunt or groan call but are generally silent at sea. Juvenile birds use a wispy whistle for begging or attracting adults’ attention.

Behavior:

While on shore, these birds stand upright and can be mistaken for penguins, though no wild penguin would be seen within the razorbill’s range. These birds float high on the water at rest but are powerful swimmers that can dive 60 feet or deeper while foraging for fish. While swimming, they hold their wings partially folded to help propel and steer themselves through the water. In flight, they stay low over the water and have swift, powerful wing beats.

Reproduction:

These are monogamous birds that are believed to mate for life after courtship displays that include elaborate pair flights and bill rubbing. Razorbills are colonial nesters and can congregate in tremendous groups during the nesting season. Both male and female birds work together to build a shallow nest in a burrow, crevice or on a cliff sheltered by rocky ledges, and the nest area may be bare or slightly lined with small pebbles or grass. The eggs are a long pear shape and may be greenish, tan or white with darker blotches concentrated at the large end. There will be 1-2 eggs per brood and only one brood is laid per year.

Both parents share incubation duties for 35-40 days, and after hatching they both care for the chicks for an additional 14-24 days. After that time, the young birds leave the nest and accompany their parents out to sea as they learn to fly.

Razorbills have been recorded as hybridizing with common murres.

Attracting Razorbills:

These are not backyard birds but proper habitat preservation of nesting sites and monitoring of pollution levels and overfishing can ensure a suitable range for these birds and easy sightings for birders on pelagic trips.

Conservation:

Despite being hunted for food in the 1800s which led to drastic population declines, these seabirds are not considered threatened or endangered today. They are highly susceptible to water pollution from trash accumulation and oil spills, and nesting colonies can be devastated by predators such as gulls and ravens. Tangling in fishing nets is also a threat to razorbills.

Similar Birds:

  • Common Murre (Uria aalge)
  • Thick-Billed Murre (Uria lomvia)
  • Dovekie (Alle alle)
  • African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

Photo – Razorbills © USFWS
Photo – Razorbill Bill Detail © Craig Nash
Photo – Razorbill in Flight © Larry Hennessy

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