Auks, Murres, and Puffins (Alcidae)
The CHARADRIIFORMES (pronounced kah-RAH-dree-ih-FOR-meez) is a taxonomic order of nineteen families including the gulls, sandpipers, plovers, and auks (more commonly known as “Alcids”).
The Alcidae (pronounced AL-sih-dee) family is composed of twenty-three species of Alcids in eleven genera, all occurring in the cold waters of the Northern Hemisphere.
Twenty-two species of Alcids in eleven genera have occurred in North America including the clown-like puffins, the murres, the murrelets, the diminutive Dovekie, and the flightless, extinct Great Auk.
Members of the Alcidae are known for their penguin-like appearance despite being unrelated to the penguin family. Alcids are also known for their habit of nesting in dense colonies. To the people of Iceland and the Faroe Islands, the Atlantic Puffin and their eggs are also known as food.
Small to medium in size, Alcids are plump, short-tailed duck-like birds with webbed feet on short legs. Unlike the extinct Great Auk, other Alcids have thin, medium-length wings used for rapid, buzzing flight. Bill shape varies among species from the short and stubby beak of the Dovekie to the thin, medium-length bills of murres and murrelets, and the narrow, arched bills of the puffins.
Most Alcid species are black on the upperparts and white on the underparts or all dark, exceptions being the guillemots (with white wing patches), and the mottled brown breeding plumages of the Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets. Some species have bright colors such as orange, yellow, and red on head plumes and on their bills.
The Alcidae are maritime birds found off both coasts of North America. On the Atlantic coast, they breed in Maine and northeastern Canada, wintering south to New Jersey, while on the west coast, Alcid species are found from the islands of the Bering Sea to southern California. Although Alcids are birds of salt water habitats, species such as the Long-billed Murrelet and the Ancient Murrelet occasionally show up as rare vagrants on freshwater lakes, and the Marbled Murrelet nests away from the shore in old growth forests.
Several Alcid species migrate short distances to escape the harsh winters of their breeding grounds.
Most Alcids are social birds nesting in dense colonies on cliffs or in burrows, some species flying to and from their nests at night to evade predatory gulls. While foraging, they often flock together and dive from the surface for small fish and crustaceans. Like penguins, they use their wings to propel themselves underwater.
The endangered Marbled Murrelet, Craveri’s Murrelet, and Xantus’s Murrelet are all threatened by habitat loss and pollution. The most endangered Alcid, though, is the Kittlitz’s Murrelet; a critically endangered species of the Bering Sea and Alaskan coast with a small declining population threatened by oil spills and habitat loss.
Despite some species nesting in obvious, dense colonies, the nests of the Marbled and Kittlitz’s Murrelets are among the most difficult of bird nests to find. A North American nest of the Marbled Murrelet wasn’t discovered in old growth rain forests of the Pacific northwest until 1974, while the Kittlitz’ Murrelet nests on talus slopes of inaccessible mountains.