The Marbled Murrelet is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite bird. It probably isn’t even anyone’s favorite auk—puffins are more photogenic, auklets are cuter, and the Great Auk, while extinct, was by definition great.
But the humble Marbled Murrelet is a bellwether species, inextricably linked to the health of old growth forests from northern California up through Alaska. And like the Northern Spotted Owl, the bird has become a symbol of conservation in the Pacific Northwest as its nesting habitats are chewed up by urban expansion and the timber industry. As a result, Marbled Murrelet numbers in Washington state have decreased by 44 percent in the last decade and a half. Such a steep population decline is ominous, but thanks to the work of Audubon Chapters up and down the West Coast, there still might be hope for the species.
Marbled Murrelets do not build nests in the traditional sense. Instead, they lay their eggs in the divots and depressions of large tree branches. Only old-growth trees have branches large enough for murrelets to nest, so any loss of this limited habitat is particular damaging to the bird. Additionally, because their eggs are out in the relative open, murrelet eggs and chicks are especially vulnerable to scavenging animals (most notably corvids such as jays and crows) that hang around human activity areas in large numbers. (One unusual effort to reduce predation involved decoy eggs that made jays vomit—the idea being that jays would avoid eating eggs entirely.)
In response to this population decline, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is in the early stages of adapting its Habitat Conservation Plan to try and save the Marbled Murrelet. Currently, the DNR is deciding between six separate decades-long plans that balance conservation with commercial use of Washington State public trust lands.
The problem, according to Mary Bond, Seattle Audubon’s Conservation Manager, is that none of these six plans are actually projected to save—let alone reverse the decline of—Marbled Murrelet populations. One of the flaws in the plans, Bond says, is that they do not safeguard large contiguous areas of old-growth forest; a heavily broken-up patchwork of old-growth stands means that predation pressure on murrelets—which occurs more frequently along the edges of old-growth stands—would be too high to sustain healthy populations of the bird.
Additionally, none of these six plans take global climate change into account, and only one was created using a formal, science-based process. To correct this problem, a contingent of Washington State Audubon chapters—Seattle Audubon, Black Hills Audubon, the Olympic Penninsula Audubon Society, Whidbey Island Audubon, Skagit Audubon, Kitsap Audubon, Pilchuck Audubon, Willapa Hills Audubon, Tahoma Audubon and Audubon Washington—are working with the Washington Forest Law Center and other local conservation organizations to come up with an alternative seventh plan, a so-called “Conservation Alternative” that will actually save the Marbled Murrelet.
The plan won't just save the murrelet, either. If used, it would also help save several other local vulnerable species such as the red tree vole. "With protection of Marbled Murrelet habitat on federal lands likely in jeopardy, we strongly encourage our state forestry agency to make the most of this opportunity," Bond says.
With a coordinated advocacy effort for the "Conservation Alternative" currently underway, there still remains hope the new plan will be implemented and the Marbled Murrelet can be saved. And so, while this pudgy little bird with curious nesting habits might not be anyone's favorite auk, it at least has a passionate cadre of champions in Washington State.