Kittlitz's Murrelet
(Brachyramphus brevirostris)
Kittlitz’s Murrelet is named after the German zoologist, Heinrich von Kittlitz, who first collected the species from the coastline of the North Pacific. This poorly-known species represents a significant amount of evolutionary history, dating back almost 40 million years. Over the past few decades the glaciers of Alaska have retreated in response to climate change. These disappearing glaciers are important habitats for Kittlitz’s Murrelet, which suffered a dramatic decline in numbers between 1989 and 2000. Mortalities are also caused by gill-net fisheries, oil spills and diseases, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning, and the remaining population is considered critically endangered.
Urgent Conservation Actions
Continued research on population trends. Safeguard suitable habitat. Address climate change on a global level.
Patchily distributed in Russia and restricted to Alaska in the US, and may also winter in Japan.
The common name of this bird commemorates the German zoologist Heinrich von Kittlitz, who first collected this species
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Media from ARKive
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelet swimming on water
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelet on water
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelets on water
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelet in flight
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelet in habitat
Arkive image - Kittlitz's murrelets (two on right) with marbled murrelets on water
Evolutionary Distinctiveness
Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
From fossil records it is thought that the roots of the Alcidae family probably extend back 30-40 million years. More commonly known as the auks, the extant members of this family are divided into two main groups or subfamilies: the Fraterculinae, comprising the high-billed puffins and the auklets, and the Alcinae, comprising the murres and true auks, the guillemots and the murrelets.

The genus Brachyramphus has radiated into a small collection of seabirds from the North Pacific. It consists of three species: the Marbled Murrelet B. marmoratus; Long-billed Murrelet B. perdix and Kittlitz’s Murrelet B. brevirostris. The species differ mainly in their ecological adaptations for breeding in high arctic and subarctic habitats. Their foraging behavior and preferences are also suspected to differ.
The tree below shows the evolutionary relationships between this species and all other birds. The colours of the tree indicate EDGE scores with the red shades indicating the higher priority species; the bright red leaves correspond to the top 100 EDGE bird species. Further information on every species can be found by zooming in to its leaf on the tree.
Weight: 235-241g
This species has two types of plumage, one for breeding and one for wintering. The breeding plumage consists of dusky black to dark grey upperparts, broken by irregular streaks of light beige and occasional golden flecks, except on the wings or tail. Kittlitz’s Murrelet features extreme plumage variation (possibly more than other seabirds) especially on the underparts of its body. The underwing feathers are a uniform brown-grey. Come winter, the upperparts change to a deep slate grey, where the feathers of the back and rump can be seen to display white tips. The head (except the cap), neck and entirety of the underparts, are uniform white. Juveniles often resemble the winter plumage but can be identified by barring on the face, nape and underparts and dark barring on the tail. The bill is black, noticeably darker than the blackish legs and feet, and is short and stubby or stocky. The irises are brown. The call is 'like that of a small chick' and also a groaning "aaahrr".
The diet of this species is thought to comprise small fish (during the summer and autumn) and macro-zooplankton (during the winter and spring), primarily sandeels, capelin, herring, smelt and Pacific sandfish. During the breeding season, feeding occurs in near-shore habitats in cold glacial fjords, at the outlets of glacier-fed streams and around icebergs and tidal glaciers, and in areas with high turbidity, especially those subject to strong tidal currents. Recent studies that have used solar powered tracking devices have discovered that after the breeding season, birds in the northern Gulf of Alaska migrated west to the Bering Sea and then north to the Chukchi Sea and returned south following the ice edge. The species only lays one egg, usually in June, and incubation lasts about 30 days. Individuals will re-lay if failure occurs early enough in the breeding season. The chick-rearing period lasts about 24-30 days at which point the chick fledges, usually in late July - August, and does not receive any additional parental care at sea. Nests have been found between 128 m and 2,249 m above sea level. There is no evidence of birds collecting materials to construct nests; however they have been seen to move small pebbles to form a cup like nest. The site itself remains seemingly unmodified and the adults and chick are distinctly coloured to provide camouflage against potential predators.
In North America the breeding habitat appears restricted to rocky, glacial moraines in alpine or arctic tundra, near the coast of Alaska and un-vegetated mountaintops on the Aleutian Islands. Scree accumulations along steep slopes many form an important component of the breeding habitat. From the few nests that have been found in Russia, conditions appear similar.
Found primarily in the northern Gulf of Alaska and on the Bering Sea during the breeding season, where it is sparsely distributed in both Russia and the United States. Almost 70 per cent of the population is concentrated along the west coast and islands of Alaska, with the remainder found in areas of the Chukchi Sea, Anadyr Gulf and Sea of Okhotsk in Russia. A recent study of the wintering movements found that those in the northern Gulf of Alaska migrated west to the Bering Sea and then north to the Chukchi Sea and returned south following the ice edge.
Population Estimate
26,000 – 42,000 individuals
Population Trend
Critically Endangered
As Kittlitz’s Murrelet is often associated with coastal glaciers, it is thought that their decline may be connected to the retreat of Alaskan glaciers in recent decades. Disturbance due to recreational and commercial tour boat traffic results in behaviour change in the birds, which may increase energetic costs and impact breeding success. The species has also suffered fatalities in gill-net fisheries and from oil spills. Changes in prey species density also impacts Kittlitz’s Murrelet populations. Areas of the Chukchi Sea in Alaska have been auctioned off for oil drilling, which may lead to more spills in known breeding areas. In some areas, chick mortality and egg loss is high due to avian and terrestrial predators. Low productivity has also been documented in birds from the US, the reasons for which need to be determined.
Conservation Underway
Kittlitz’s Murrelet is not currently protected by the American Endangered Species Act in the United States. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided that listing the species as threatened or endangered was not warranted at this time, although they have received a petition to list it. Guidelines have been developed in the United States to curtail disturbance at nesting sites. The species is listed in the Russia Red Data Book. In Alaska, birds have been banded and radio-tracked, revealing the location of previously undiscovered nests. In 2008, the Kittlitz's Murrelet Technical Committee was formed by the Pacific Seabird Group to advise on the species ecology and range, facilitate research and mediate in conservation issues.
Conservation Proposed
Further surveys and monitoring of the population status and trends in both the United States and Russia need to continue. It is also important to understand the relationship between the species and glaciers and ensure that there are no other threats acting at a population or species level. The impact of gill-net fishing and commercial vessels on behaviour must be determined. Modified fishing techniques need to be developed to reduce negative effects on murrelet numbers. Laws around oil drilling should be tightened to reduce chances of petroleum contamination. Climate change on a global scale needs to be addressed. The factors contributing to low productivity need to be investigated. Keykey breeding and wintering sites should be located and protected.
Agness, A. M.; Piatt, J. F.; Ha, J. C.; VanBlaricom, G. R. 2008. Effects of vessel activity on the near-shore ecology of Kittlitz's Murrelets (Brachyramphus brevirostris) in Glacier Bay, Alaska. The Auk 125(2): 346-353.

BirdLife International (2013) Species factsheet: Brachyramphus brevirostris. Downloaded from www.birdlife.org on 08/07/2013

Day, R. H., Kuletz, K. J. and Nigro, D. A. (1999) Kittlitz's Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris. In Poole, A. and Gill, F., eds. The birds of North America, No. 435. Philadelphia and Washington, DC: The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and the American Ornithologists' Union.

Day, R.H. and Nigro, D. A. (2004). Is the Kittlitz's Murrelet exhibiting reproductive problems in Prince William Sound, Alaska? Waterbirds 27: 89-95

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J., eds. (1996) Hand Book of Birds of the World. Barcelona: Volume 3: Hoatzin To Auks. Lynx Edicions.

Kissling, M. L., Reid, M., Lukacs, P., Gende. S. M. and Lewis, S. B. (2006) Temporal and spatial variability of Kittlitz's Murrelets in Icy Bay, Alaska. Wings without borders: IV North American Ornithological Conference, October 3-7, 2006, Veracruz, Mexico, pp. 175.

Kissling, M. L., Gende, S. M., Reid, M., Lewis, S. B., Lukacs, P. M. and Hatch, N. R. (2008). Discovering nests of a rare non-colonial seabird, the Kittlitz's Murrelet. Abstracts, 35th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group, Blaine, Washington, 27 Feb - 2 Mar 2008, pp. 84. Little River, CA, USA, Pacific Seabird Group.

Kuletz, K. J., Stephensen, S. W., Irons, d. B., Labunski, E. A. & Brenneman, K. M. 2003.  Changes in Distribution and Abundance of Kittlitz’s Murrelets Brachyramphus brevirostris relative to Glacial Recession in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 31: 133-140.
Text compiled by Michelle Harrison. Factchecked by Michelle Kissing.

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