Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A group of thick-billed murres on a St. George Island rookery in Alaska. Thick-bills are recognizable by the white line down the sides of their bills.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection

Thick-Billed Murre

The thick-billed murre swims far better than it flies.

Flying and Swimming

Takeoff is awkward, but once it's airborne, the thick-billed murre can fly at about 75 miles an hour. Among the deepest underwater divers of all birds, it uses its stubby wings to "fly" through the water, routinely reaching depths of more than 330 feet—sometimes even twice that—in pursuit of the fish, squid, and crustaceans it feeds on.

Population Range

Covered in black feathers on its head, back, and wings and white feathers on its breast and underside, this waterbird can be found in and around Arctic waters. In the summer it breeds off the rocky coasts of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. But in winter—when it's not breeding—the thick-billed murre is at sea, off the edge of open ice southward to Nova Scotia and northern British Columbia. It also winters off the coasts of Greenland, northern Europe, and southward in the Pacific Ocean to northern Japan.

Behavior and Reproduction

The thick-billed murre doesn’t build nests. Instead, the female joins others of her species in a large, noisy colony and lays a single egg on a narrow cliff ledge. She then arranges pebbles and other debris close to the egg, cementing them with feces to form a support that prevents the large egg from rolling off the ledge if it dislodges. The egg hatches in 30 to 35 days. Both parents feed the chick, caring for it until it fledges at about 21 days old. At this time, chicks make a migratory journey that is unique among birds, swimming as far as 620 miles in the first leg to their wintering grounds off the coast of Newfoundland.

Although thick-billed murre numbers are generally healthy, the birds are vulnerable to oil spills and gill-netting. Each year in a traditional food hunt, native people in Canada shoot the birds near breeding colonies. Others are hunted during their migration from the coast of Greenland.