Kittlitz's Murrelet

Brachyramphus brevirostris

  • Authors: Day, Robert H., Katherine J. Kuletz and Debora A. Nigro
  • Published: Jan 1, 1999

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Figure 1. Breeding distribution of Kittlitz's Murrelet in North America.

This species also breeds in Asia. See text for details.

Adult Kittlitz's Murrelet, at sea.

; photographer Robert H. Day

The Kittlitz's Murrelet is a mysterious bird of Beringia. In North America, it nests only in Alaska, particularly in glaciated areas from Glacier Bay to the Alaska Peninsula. Small populations also breed in western Alaska and the Russian Far East. This is the only alcid that nests on the ground at or near the tops of mountains, particularly near glaciers and in previously glaciated areas, where its cryptic plumage helps it avoid detection. In areas that are glaciated, it forages near tidewater glaciers and outflows of glacial streams.

Kittlitz's Murrelets nest primarily in unvegetated scree fields and occasionally in cliff faces. They lay a single egg in a small scrape, usually on the downhill side of a large rock. After an incubation period of unknown length, the egg hatches into a small, downy young that is colored much the same as the surrounding rocky hillside. The fledging period has been measured for only one bird, at 24 d. After fledging, the young birds remain near shore and learn to feed on their own. After breeding, most Kittlitz's Murrelets leave the mostly protected waters where they are found during summer and probably winter primarily over the open ocean; the main wintering grounds, and essentially all aspects of winter ecology, are unknown, however. In fact, most aspects of the biology of this species remain unknown.

The species' general rarity and patchy distribution and questions about its population trends all have heightened concern about its future. As a result, it formerly was classified as a "Species of Special Concern" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS); however, that classification no longer exists under the Endangered Species Act. It also is listed in the Red Book of the USSR, and collection of birds there is allowed only by special permit. Threats to its survival include global warming, oil spills, bycatch during gill-net fishing for salmon, and possibly disturbance by boats in summer feeding areas near tide-water glaciers.

Because its abundance is so local and its nesting habitat requirements so unusual, almost nothing has been published specifically on this species. The few key studies have involved primarily aspects of nesting habitat (e.g., Kishchinskii 1968, Day et al. 1983, Day 1995, Piatt et al. 1999) and nesting phenology (Day and Stickney 1996) across the species' range. Recent research on populations, habitat use, reproduction, and feeding ecology in Prince William Sound (Day and Nigro 1998) is ongoing and will be published soon.

This account follows the biogeographic regions for Alaska outlined in Kessel and Gibson 1978: Southeastern Alaska, Southcoastal Alaska, Southwestern Alaska, Western Alaska, and Northern Alaska. For description of these regions see Kessel and Gibson 1978 .

Recommended Citation

Day, Robert H., Katherine J. Kuletz and Debora A. Nigro.(1999).Kittlitz's Murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America:

DOI: 10.2173/bna.435