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Razorbill Life History

Habitat

Habitat OceansRazorbills spend most of their lives at sea in the open ocean, foraging in waters that are usually cold (below 59°F and typically colder), where small schooling fish are abundant. They generally forage well south of sea ice. Their prey species are highly mobile, so Razorbills move around during the nonbreeding season, searching for prey sometimes close to shore but more often farther away over the continental shelf or in the deeper waters of the continental slope. Prey often concentrates at shoals, upwellings, or where two different water masses meet, such as the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream. Razorbills can be numerous around such seawater frontal boundaries. In winter, they forage mostly over water that is 130 feet deep or less, typically over sandy bottom rather than rocks. When nesting, Razorbills select seaside cliffs or sometimes cliffs over brackish waters, such as the St. Lawrence estuary. During the breeding season, they are less mobile than at other times of year, staying fairly near the nest cliffs. When prey is scarce, they may travel as far as 50 miles for food.Back to top

Food

Food Fish

Razorbills eat mostly small, schooling fish year-round, which they capture by diving and swimming, sometimes to great depths (down to 330 feet) but more typically less than 100 feet. After diving, they typically swim below schools of fish, using their wings to “fly” underwater and steering with their feet. They seize fish in the bill as they ascend. They often swallow fish underwater, so as to discourage gulls from pirating their fish at the surface. When nesting, Razorbills may carry up to eight fish per visit to their chick, as puffins and Rhinoceros Auklets also do, as these species have special serrations in the upper jaw that hold prey firmly in place. They feed their chicks up to four times per day.

Razorbills often fly in loose flocks, but when searching for prey (especially in early morning), they scan their environment carefully from the air, gracefully wheeling and pivoting in the air before dropping to the surface.

Over much of their range, their chief prey items are Atlantic herring, northern sandlance, and capelin, but they also eat threespine stickleback, sprat, whiting, pilchard, silver hake, red hake, white hake, fourbeard rockling, butterfish, Atlantic saury, rainbow smelt, daubed shanny, snake pipefish, garfish, and various other species of anchovy, sculpin, goby, rockling, and pollock. Small crustaceans (northern krill, plus many euphausiids, amphipods, and decapods) and bristleworms are also important parts of their diet, especially in winter.

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Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest CliffMales select nest sites on windward slopes of rocky islands, steep cliffs, and areas of boulders. On occasion, Razorbills use old burrows of Atlantic Puffin.

Nest Description

Some Razorbills make no nest, but most have a scrape lined with pebbles, vegetation, feathers, small bones, or seashells. Their narrow nest ledges usually measure only about 11.8 inches long by 7.5 inches wide.

Nesting Facts

Egg Description:Whitish with dark blotches around large end.
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Behavior

Behavior Surface DiveRazorbills tend to be long-lived, and often mate for life. Young single birds spend their first breeding season practicing courtship and trying to establish a nest site. Males that have staked a nest site on a ledge attract females by what is called the “ecstatic” display, in which they raise their bills vertically and call, then bring the bill to the breast, showing off the bright yellow interior of the mouth. An interested female might join a displaying male and engage in billing (touching bills) and mutual preening before establishing a bond. Younger females sometimes court multiple suitors before selecting a mate. Pairs also perform courtship while swimming on the sea. Well-established couples court when they first return to their nest site, and they often bill, preen, and point bills to the ground, especially when relieving their mate at incubation, in what researchers call a “greeting ceremony.” Both males and females guard mates against rivals, sometimes quite aggressively. Both sexes share incubation and chick-feeding duties, with one parent present as the other forages at sea or rests on the sea below the nest ledge. When feeding young, they may travel over 60 miles on foraging flights. Young birds leave the nest ledge before they have fledged, and the male parent guides them to sea and feeds them until they are independent. During the nonbreeding season, Razorbills often gather in flocks at sea where prey is abundant.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

Razorbill populations are thought to be stable or increasing globally. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.2 million birds and rates the species a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. In the past, exploitation by people for food (adults, eggs, and young) greatly reduced Razorbill populations, and populations in North America have been very slow to recover from this slaughter, which ended in 1949. Unfortunately, the continued legalized hunting of murres in Canada results in the incidental killing of thousands of Razorbills annually, as these species look similar from a distance. Razorbills are still legally hunted in Iceland, where tens of thousands are killed each year. Other threats to the survival of this species include entanglement in fishing gear, pesticide poisoning, oil spills and oil pollution (known to have caused massive mortality in the species), and climate change, which already has had an impact on Razorbills. Warming oceans have changed the distribution of their chief prey, in some cases into waters too far north of breeding cliffs to permit successful breeding.

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Credits

Lavers, Jennifer, J. Mark Hipfner and Gilles Chapdelaine. (2009). Razorbill (Alca torda), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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