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Razorbill Alca torda

This species has undergone moderate declines in Europe, including very rapid declines in Iceland since 2005. Crashes in sandeel stocks around Iceland may be a contributing factor in the declines. The species has therefore been uplisted to Near Threatened as it almost meets the requirements for listing as threatened under criterion A4ab.

Taxonomic source(s)
AERC TAC. 2003. AERC TAC Checklist of bird taxa occurring in Western Palearctic region, 15th Draft. Available at: # _the_WP15.xls#.
Cramp, S.; Perrins, C. M. 1977-1994. Handbook of the birds of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The birds of the western Palearctic. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
del Hoyo, J.; Collar, N. J.; Christie, D. A.; Elliott, A.; Fishpool, L. D. C. 2014. HBW and BirdLife International Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of the World. Barcelona, Spain and Cambridge UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International.

37-39 cm. Black upperparts, tail, wings and head which contrast with white underparts. Blackish legs. Thick black bill with broken transverse white line across both mandibles and prominent white line extending from base of culmen to eye (Nettleship 1996). In winter, birds have white throat, cheeks and ear-coverts and no horizontal white line on bill. Juvenile similar to winter adult.

Distribution and population
The species breeds on islands, rocky shores and cliffs on northern Atlantic coasts, in eastern North America as far south as Maine (U.S.A.), and in western Europe from north-west Russia to north-west France. North American birds migrate offshore and south, ranging from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (Canada) to New England and New York (U.S.A.) (Nettleship 1996). Eurasian birds also winter at sea, with some moving south as far as the western Mediterranean and North Africa (Nettleship 1996, Merne and Mitchell 2004).

Population justification
The European population is estimated at 979,000-1,020,000 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2015).

Trend justification
Although a number of populations are increasing within Europe, a recent sharp decline was observed in Iceland (where more than 60% of the European population is found) since 2005 (BirdLife International 2015). Two comprehensive surveys of the species in Iceland suggest that the population declined by 18% between 1983-1986 (Gardarsson 1995) and 2005-2009 (Gardarsson et al. in press) from 378,000 pairs to 313,000 pairs. However more frequent monitoring of a subset of colonies (every five years) between 1985 and 2005 suggests the population decline only started in 2005 and prior to this the population was stable, demonstrating that the decline has been much more rapid. Evidence of a very rapid decline in the Icelandic population is supported by data from the largest colony of this species in the world, Látrabjarg, which declined by 45% in only three years (160,000 pairs in 2006 to 89,000 pairs in 2009) (G. Gudmundsson in litt. 2015). The 2005 decline occurred around the same time that sandeel stocks crashed around Iceland, suggesting that a lack of food may have influenced the decline (Gardarsson et al. in press). As a result of the reported decline in Iceland, the estimated and projected rate of decline of the European population size over the period 2005-2046 (three generations) is 25-30%.

The population trend is increasing in North America (based on BBS/CBC data: Butcher and Niven 2007). Europe is thought to hold c. 95% of the global population, based on latest population estimates (Merne and Mitchell 2004, Berglund and Hentati-Sundberg 2014). Thus the European decline is of global significance.

The species lives on rocky sea coasts, breeding on cliff ledges and under boulders in boreal or low Arctic waters (Nettleship 1996). The species is a pursuit diver that propels itself through the water with its wings. They are capable of diving to 120 m depth, but mostly forage nearer the surface. They spend most of their lives at sea, only arriving ashore to reproduce. This species has been described as coastal rather than pelagic (Huettman et al. 2005), and birds tend to be concentrated within 10 km of the shore (BirdLife International 2000, Huettman et al. 2005). They are known to consume Krill, Sprat Sprattus sprattus, Sandeels Ammondytes spp. and Capelin amongst other prey (Nettleship 1996).

This species is threatened by the current and future impacts of climate change, including temperature extremes, sea temperature rises and shifts and reductions in prey availability (Sandvik et al. 2005). A crash in sandeel stocks around Iceland is thought to have contributed to the very rapid population decline of Razorbill in Iceland (Gardarsson et al. in press). The species is vulnerable to extreme weather, with severe winter storms causing large scale mortality across north-western Europe in the past (Underwood and Stowe 1984). 

As a pursuit diver the species is at risk from being caught in gillnets and driftnets, with gillnet fisheries in the North and Baltic Seas known to catch significant numbers (Žydelis et al. 2009, 2013, Skov et al. 2011). Overfishing of important prey species in the Gulf of St Lawrence, east Newfoundland and Grand Banks, Georges Bank, North Sea and Barents Sea is also a threat (Nettleship 1996). As the species spends much of its life at sea, including at and below the sea surface, it is vulnerable to both chronic oil pollution and oil spill events. Offshore renewable energy, such as wind farms are also likely to pose a threat to this species, including through habitat displacement (Furness et al. 2013) and collision, although collision risk is currently considered low (Bradbury et al. 2014). Disturbance from shipping lanes and marine constructions occurs in coastal and offshore areas with high human presence, and habitat degradation at sea from mining and aggregate extraction also threatens this species. 

On land during its breeding season this species is exposed to invasive mammalian predators (e.g. rats, cats, American Mink Neovison vison), which could increase in severity as climate change allows their northward movement. The species is also vulnerable to disturbance from recreational and tourism activities. Unregulated hunting in Labrador, the Gulf of St Lawrence, Newfoundland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Norway poses a major threat (Nettleship 1996, Thorup et al. 2014).

Conservation and Research Actions Underway
The species is listed on the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement. There are 91 Important Bird Areas across the region for this species. Within the EU there are 91 Special Protected Areas for this species, recognised as a regularly occurring migratory species. The species is considered in the Nordic Action Plan for seabirds in Western-Nordic areas (TemaNord 2010). 

Conservation and Research Actions Proposed
Establish international monitoring system (Nettleship 1996). Continue to identify important sites for this species, particularly in offshore regions and designate as marine protected areas. Identify the risks of different activities on seabirds, and locations sensitive to seabirds. Continue eradication of invasive predators from breeding colonies. Management of fisheries to ensure long-term sustainability of key stocks (e.g. sandeels). Establish observer schemes for bycatch and prepare National/Regional plans of action on seabird bycatch. Develop codes-of-conduct for more organised activities (e.g. tourism). Ensure that appropriate protection (national laws and international agreements) applies to new areas and times in case of changes in seabird migration routes and times.

Žydelis, R., Small, C. and French, G. 2013. The incidental catch of seabirds in gillnet fisheries: A global review. Biological Conservation 162: 76-88.

Berglund, P.A. and Hentati-Sundberg, J. 2014. Arctic Seabirds Breeding in the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) Area: Status and Trends 2014. AEWA Conservation Status Report (CSR6) background report.

BirdLife International. 2000. The Development of Boundary Selection Criteria for the Extension of Breeding Seabird Special Protection Areas into the Marine Environment. OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. Vlissingen (Flushing).

BirdLife International. 2015. European Red List of Birds. Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg.

Bradbury, G., Trinder, M., Furness, B., Banks, A.N., Caldow, R.W.G. and Hume, D. 2014. Mapping Seabird Sensitivity to Offshore Wind Farms. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106366.

del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., and Sargatal, J. 1996. Handbook of the Birds of the World, vol. 3: Hoatzin to Auks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Furness, R.W., Wade, H.M. and Masden, E.A. 2013. Assessing Vulnerability of Marine Bird Populations to Offshore Wind Farms. Journal of Environmental Management 119: 56-66.

Gardarsson, A. 1995. Number and distribution of Common Murre Uria aalge, Thick-billed Murre U. lomvia and Razorbill Alca torda in Iceland. Bliki 16: 47-65.

Gardarsson, A., Gudmundsson, G.A. and Lilliendahl, K. in press. The numbers of large auks on the cliffs of Iceland in 2006-2008. Bliki 33 (in press).

Huettman, F., Diamond, A.W., Dalzell, B. and Macintosh, K. 2005. Winter distribution, ecology and movements of razorbills Alca torda and other auks in the outer Bay of Fundy, eastern Canada. Marine Ornithology 33: 161-171.

IUCN. 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Available at: (Accessed: 19 November 2015).

Merne, O.J. and Mitchell, P.I. 2004. Razorbill Alca torda. In: Mitchell, P.I., Newton, S.F., Ratcliffe, N. and Dunn, T.E. (eds), Seabird populations of Britain and Ireland, Poyser, London.

Nettleship, D.N. 1996. Razorbill (Alca torda). In: J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D.A. Christie, and E. de Juana (eds), Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive, Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.

Sandvik, H., Erikstad, K.E., Barrett, R.T. and Yoccoz, N.G. 2005. The effect of climate on adult survival in five species of North Atlantic seabirds. Journal of Animal Ecology 74(5): 817-831.

Skov, H., Heinänen, S., Žydelis, R., Bellebaum, J., Bzoma, S., Dagys, M., Durinck, J., Garthe, S., Grishanov, G., Hario, M., Kieckbusch, J.J., Kube, J., Kuresoo, A., Larsson, K., Luigujoe, L., Meissner, W., Nehls, H.W., Nilsson, L., Petersen, I.K., Roos, M.M., Pihl, S., Sonntag, N., Stock, A., Stipniece, A. and Wahl, J. 2011. Waterbird Populations and Pressures in the Baltic Sea. Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen.

TemaNord. 2010. Action Plan for Seabirds in Western-Nordic Areas. Report from a workshop in Malmö, Sweden, 4-5 May 2010. Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen.

Thorup, S.H., Jensen, J-K., Petersen, K.T. and Kasper, D.B. 2014. Færøsk Trækfugleatlas. The Faroese Bird Migration Atlas. Faroe University Press, Tórshavn.

Underwood, L.A. and Stowe, T.J. 1984. Massive wreck of seabirds in eastern Britain, 1983. Bird Study 31(2): 79-88.

Zydelis, R.; Bellebaum, J.; Österblom, H.; Vetemaa, M.; Schirmeister, B.; Stipniece, A.; Dagys, M.; van Eerden, M.; Garthe, S. 2009. Bycatch in gillnet fisheries - an overlooked threat to waterbird populations. Biological Conservation 142: 1269-1281.

Further web sources of information
Detailed regional assessment and species account from the European Red List of Birds (BirdLife International, 2015)

Detailed species account from Birds in Europe: population estimates, trends and conservation status (BirdLife International 2004)

Explore HBW Alive for further information on this species

View photos and videos and hear sounds of this species from the Internet Bird Collection

Text account compilers
Butchart, S., Calvert, R., Ekstrom, J., Hatchett, J., Tarzia, M, Wheatley, H., Ieronymidou, C., Ashpole, J, Burfield, I., Pople, R. & Wright, L

Bourne, W. & Gudmundsson, G.

IUCN Red List evaluators
Symes, A.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Alca torda. Downloaded from on 01/12/2015. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2015) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 01/12/2015.

This information is based upon, and updates, the information published in BirdLife International (2000) Threatened birds of the world. Barcelona and Cambridge, UK: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, BirdLife International (2004) Threatened birds of the world 2004 CD-ROM and BirdLife International (2008) Threatened birds of the world 2008 CD-ROM. These sources provide the information for species accounts for the birds on the IUCN Red List.

To provide new information to update this factsheet or to correct any errors, please email BirdLife

To contribute to discussions on the evaluation of the IUCN Red List status of Globally Threatened Birds, please visit BirdLife's Globally Threatened Bird Forums.

Additional resources for this species

ARKive species - Razorbill (Alca torda) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Near Threatened
Family Alcidae (Auks)
Species name author Linnaeus, 1758
Population size mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 1,230,000 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species
- 2015 European Red List assessment