Kittlitz’s murrelet -- 小嘴斑海雀 (Brachyramphus brevirostris)

Kittlitz's murrelet swimming on water
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Kittlitz’s murrelet fact file

Kittlitz’s murrelet description

GenusBrachyramphus (1)

One of the rarest breeding seabirds in the North Pacific (3), Kittlitz’s murrelet is a small and mysterious bird (4). During the breeding season, the plumage on the upperparts is mottled brown, buff and white, while the underparts are largely white, as are the outer edges of the tail feathers (2). This cryptic plumage provides camouflage in its barren, glacial breeding habitat (4). In winter, the Kittlitz’s murrelet is slate grey on its upperparts, with a black cap, and the face, like the throat and underparts, is white except for a dark patch in front of the eye (2). Its legs, feet and short bill are brownish (2). Juvenile Kittlitz’s murrelets are similar in appearance to adults in winter, except for fine barring which patterns the face, neck, underparts and tail (2).

Also known as
short-billed murrelet.
Length: 22 – 23 cm (2)
224 g (2)

Kittlitz’s murrelet biology

The rarity of Kittlitz’s murrelet combined with its relatively inaccessible habitat has meant that little has been published on this bird’s biology and ecology (4). In summer, it searches for food in bays and inlets (2), and around the outflows of glacial streams (4), feeding on sandeels, capelin, herring, smelt, and Pacific sandfish, as well as krill and shrimps (2). In winter, when large flocks of up to 500 Kittlitz’s murrelets gather at areas where prey is abundant, it is thought to feed on tiny marine crustaceans and small fish (2), capturing its prey by diving into the ocean and propelling itself through the water with strong wing beats (6). Although Kittlitz’s murrelet may feed at any time of the day or night, it is observed most frequently in the morning (6).

Kittlitz’s murrelet is the only species in the Alcidae family that nests on the ground, high up in mountains on barren scree slopes (2) (4). Thought to be monogamous, a pair of Kittlitz’s murrelets will lay a single egg on a rock ledge, in a crevice, or on bare, gravelly ground (2). This generally takes place in May or June, with the exact timing depending on the location (2). After being incubated for probably around 30 days, the egg hatches and the helpless chick, barely able to stand (6), is delivered food by both of its parents for the next 24 days (2), before leaving for the ocean and learning to feed on its own (4). After breeding, and with the onset of winter, Kittlitz’s murrelet leaves the more protected coastal waters and heads out into the open ocean (4).


Kittlitz’s murrelet range

Kittlitz’s murrelet has a patchy distribution centred around the Bering Sea. It breeds in far eastern Russia and Alaska, USA (4) (5), and during winter can be found offshore of its breeding areas (2).

See this species on Google Earth.


Kittlitz’s murrelet habitat

In summer, Kittlitz’s murrelet is found in coastal regions or further inland (2), where it breeds on mountain scree slopes, particularly near glaciers (2) (4). Its preferred winter habitat in this remote part of the world is poorly known, but it is thought to spend the winter months offshore, along rocky sea coasts (2) (4).


Kittlitz’s murrelet status

Classified as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Critically Endangered


Kittlitz’s murrelet threats

Rapid declines have been observed in populations of Kittlitz’s murrelets (1) (6), leaving this rare bird on the verge of extinction (1). The threats to Kittlitz’s murrelet are numerous and significant, including habitat loss and degradation, possibly as a result of global warming; disturbance and degradation of habitat as a result of boat traffic in summer feeding areas; drowning in gillnet fisheries; and oil spills (4) (5). Between 7 and 15 percent of the murrelet population inhabiting Prince William Sound, Alaska, died as a result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 (5), one of the most publicized environmental tragedies in history (7).


Kittlitz’s murrelet conservation

Considered globally by IUCN to be Critically Endangered (1), Kittlitz’s murrelet is listed in the Red Data Book of Russia (4), but is not currently protected in the USA, where there is currently believed to be insufficient data to determine its status (5). However, guidelines to avoid the disturbance of nesting birds have been drawn up in the USA (5). Given the evidence that shows Kittlitz’s murrelet is on a path towards extinction, its protection in the USA under the Endangered Species Act is believed to be essential (5) (6), along with the protection of critical habitat, which would help guard this species from the threats of fishing, tourism and industrial boat traffic (6).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

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Diverse group of arthropods (a phylum of animals with jointed limbs and a hard chitinous exoskeleton) characterised by the possession of two pairs of antennae, one pair of mandibles (parts of the mouthparts used for handling and processing food) and two pairs of maxillae (appendages used in eating, which are located behind the mandibles). Includes crabs, lobsters, shrimps, slaters, woodlice and barnacles.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.


  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2008)
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (2002) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 3: Hoatzin To Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Stenhouse, I.J., Studebaker, S. and Zwiefelhofer, D. (2008) Kittlitz’s murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska. Marine Ornithology, 36: 59 - 66.
  4. Day, R.H., Kuletz, K.J. and Nigro, D.A. (1999) Kittlitz's murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  5. BirdLife International (September, 2008)
  6. Center for Biological Diversity. (2001) Petition to List the Kittlitz’s Murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Center for Biological Diversity, Coastal Coalition, Eyak Preservation Council, and Lynn Canal Conservation Society.
  7. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council (September, 2008)

Image credit

Kittlitz's murrelet swimming on water  
Kittlitz's murrelet swimming on water

© Glen Tepke

Glen Tepke


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