Photo: Pacific Underwater: Marbled murrelet chicks hatch in June

Adult marbled murrelet in breeding plumage engaging in courtship display (Credit: Jenna Craig)

By Kat Middleton, Western Region Science and Policy Intern

Throughout spring and early summer, thousands of chunky little Pacific seabirds blast through British Columbia's old growth forests at speeds up to 150 kilometres per hour, heading out to gorge on ocean seafood. After wintering far offshore, marbled murrelets (biologists call them MAMUs) return to B.C. coastal inlets every spring, following their favourite prey: juvenile Pacific herring and sand lance.

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They lay their eggs in May and the first fluffy brown chicks hatch in early June. Mom and Dad often fly 100 kilometres from their rainforest nest and dive up to 100 metres below the ocean surface to catch fatty fish for their brood.

Built to fly fast and dive deep, MAMUs aren't good at landing. They rely on large, mossy limbs of Pacific temperate rainforest trees as cushions, but crash-land so clumsily, it's a miracle they survive, let alone build nests. Without spacious canopies to fly through and big, soft branches to land on, these feathered footballs have a hard time touching down.

In years with fewer fish or when feeding waters are disturbed by human activity, MAMUs avoid breeding because of the energy required to produce offspring. Overfishing and boat traffic can prevent them from raising their next generation.

In contrast, crows, jays, and ravens thrive in human places like campgrounds, communities and roads. That's bad news for murrelets, as these predatory birds can snatch eggs from most nests. The good news: Scientists are tricking predators into thinking MAMU eggs are poisonous by creating slightly toxic mimics—and it's working!

Marbled murrelets are on Canada's threatened species list, but the federal government severely delayed release of their recovery strategy, which must bring much-needed protection to the places where they live. Without specific nesting locations or identification of marine critical habitat, it's impossible to help them. Since MAMUs spend almost all their time on the ocean, we need ecosystem-based management of B.C. coastal waters—including a strong network of marine protected areas—to protect them.

Canadians should look closely at what's happening with British Columbia's coastal ecosystems. Like Pacific salmon, MAMUs complex ecology blurs the boundaries between land and sea, making them a symbol of the wonderfully wide web nature casts, but more difficult to protect.

If you're passionate about the ocean and want to help us work to protect it, join our team of Ocean Keepers.

Help us protect the coast by becoming an Ocean Keeper »

June 25, 2014

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