email a friend
printable version
Kittlitz's Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris
BirdLife Species Champion Become a BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme Supporter
For information about BirdLife Species Champions and Species Guardians visit the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme.

This poorly known alcid is estimated to be suffering an extremely rapid population decline owing to a variety of threats, qualifying it as Critically Endangered. However, recent surveys suggest that the population may not be undergoing such a steep downward trend, and upon clarification the species may warrant downlisting in the near future.

Taxonomic source(s)
AOU. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Sibley, C. G.; Monroe, B. L. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the world. Yale University Press, New Haven, USA.

25 cm. Small well-marked alcid. In breeding season upperparts dark grey with irregular fringing of light buff over most feather tracts (except wings and tail). Underparts light buff or off-white, sparse dark streaking on front and sides of head to upper chest. Remaining underparts barred. In winter adult the upperparts and sides of upper breast slate grey, feathers of mantle and rump edged white, underparts (except breast band) white. Similar spp. Distinguished in summer plumage from Marbled B. marmoratus and Long-billed B. perdix by small bill and speckled or streaked plumage. In winter white face extends above eye and has white collar and complete (or nearly complete) breast band. At all times; the outer vanes of the tail feathers are white, making the tail look white as the feathers are spread. Voice Calls 'like that of a small chick' and also a groaning "aaahrr".

Distribution and population
Brachyramphus brevirostris has a distribution that is geographically centred on the Bering Sea where it is rare and patchily distributed in both Russia and the USA. In Alaska (where c.70% of the total population occurs [K. Kuletz in litt. 2002]) it is found from just east of Cape Lisburne south to the Aleutian Islands and east to LeConte Bay. In Russia, it is limited to the eastern Chukotskiy Peninsula in the Chukchi Sea west to Cape Schmidt and south to Anadyr Gulf, as well as Shelikov Bay in the northern Sea of Okhotsk (Day et al. 1999). The Alaskan population is estimated to number 8,190-36,193 birds (USFWS 2009), and surveys in much of the Alaskan range indicated that populations may have declined by >80-90% during the past 15 years (Piatt et al. undated). In Prince William Sound, the population declined by 84% between 1989 (6,436 birds) and 2000 (1,033 birds) following a possible longer term decline since 1972, when the population was estimated at 63,000 individuals (K. Kuletz in litt. 2002, Kuletz et al. 2003). In the Malaspina Forelands, numbers declined by 38-75% in 1992-2002. In Glacier Bay, density estimates declined by 89.1% in 1991-2000, with c.2,200 birds estimated there in 1999-2000 (K. Kuletz in litt. 2002). Total abundance in Icy Bay, Alaska, was estimated to be 1,725-2,372 birds in 2002, suggesting a decline of 59% over a three-year period (Kissling 2006). There are no trend data from other parts of the species's range, but anecdotal information suggests population declines are occurring in at least some of these other areas. The wintering distribution includes records from coastal Kamchatka, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido (Japan) and the continental shelf of the northern Gulf of Alaska (Day 2006), and birds are present year-round at Kodiak Island (Alaska) (Stenhouse et al. 2008). There is now considerable uncertainty over the current population trend and the rate of the decline over recent decades, and further analysis is required.

Population justification
The population in Alaska is currently estimated at 19,578 individuals (range of 8,190-36,193; USFWS 2009). Data from Russia is scarce, but 5,100 birds are estimated to occur along Kamchatka and the Chukotka Peninsula (USFWS 2009), hence the global population is best placed in the band 20,000-40,000 individuals. Brazil (2009) estimates that Russian population to comprise: < 100 breeding pairs; < 50 individuals on migration and < 50 wintering individuals.

Trend justification
Surveys have indicated that the population is undergoing an extremely rapid decline, which is projected to continue (K. Kuletz in litt. 2002; Kuletz et al. 2003; Kissling 2006; Piatt et al. undated). However, more recent surveys suggest that the population may not be declining at such a steep rate (M. Kissling in litt. 2010; M. Kirchoff in litt. 2010), although clarification is required.

It lays a single egg on the ground amongst unvegetated scree or on cliff faces, but one recently found nest on Kodiak Island, Alaska, was on exposed bedrock (Stenhouse et al. 2008). Breeding was thought to be restricted to sites at or near the tops of mountains in glaciated regions (Day et al. 1999), but twelve active nests were recently found on Agattu in the western Aleutians, indicating that the species can nest at high densities in areas far from glaciers (Stenhouse et al. 2008). Individuals do not breed until 2-4 years of age, and may not breed every year (Day and Nigro 2004). It generally forages in different water types to the closely related Marbled Murrelet B. marmoratus, preferring but not exclusively feeding during the breeding season in turbid waters of glacial origin (Day et al. 2003). It feeds on fish and macro-zooplankton. During winter, recent work suggests that small groups are present in the Bering and Chukchi Sea in spring and autumn, but not in summer. Birds are almost always found in open leads of pack ice during early spring, but not in other times of the year, and birds are often found near Point Barrow in the autumn (M. Kissling in litt. 2010).

There have been strong links made between this species's decline and areas of glacial recession (possibly as a result of climate change) (Piatt et al. undated, Kuletz et al. 2003, Van Pelt 2005). Other threats include habitat degradation and repeated disturbance of birds owing to recreational and commercial tour-boat traffic; mortality in gill-net fisheries (documented in Prince William Sound, Yakutat Bay, and near Kodiak Island [M. Kissling in litt. 2010]); mortality from petroleum contamination (7-15% of the Prince William Sound population died as result of the ExxonValdez oil spill); and a change in prey species abundance adversely affecting piscivorous fish (Kuletz et al. 2006). Boat traffic in Glacier Bay was found to cause a 30-fold increase in flight behaviour, and nearshore densities of murrelets were temporarily suppressed by vessel passage, although this was not found to result in a persistent loss of foraging habitat (Agness et al. 2008). In 2008, the U.S. Government auctioned leases to drill for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, raising the potential prospect of catastrophic oil spills in an area where the species is known to breed (BirdLife International 2008). Near-zero productivity in 1996-1998, for unknown reasons, may lead to further future declines (Day and Nigro 2004). Birds breeding in the western Aleutians have been found to have low reproductive success, with losses during the incubation period primarily due to avian predators locating unattended eggs, and chick mortality during the nestling period largely due to inclement weather (Kaler et al. 2008). According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, data from Agattu and Kodiak islands indicate that nest success is very low (less than 10%), with few juvenile birds having been documented there, and blood chemistry analysis at Icy Bay indicates that few females there (c.10%) are breeding despite the majority (c.90%) being physiologically prepared to breed (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011). It is also suspected that adult mortality is slightly elevated by losses to hydrocarbon contamination, entanglement in gillnets and high predation pressure (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2011).

Conservation Actions Underway
In the USA, the species is a candidate (listing priority 2) under the Endangered Species Act, and is listed in the Russia Red Data Book (Van Pelt 2005, M. Kissling in litt. 2010). Guidelines have been drawn up in the USA to avoid disturbance of nesting birds. From 2005 to 2009 in Icy Bay, Alaska, 340 birds were banded, and 122 adults and four juveniles have been radio-tracked leading to the discovery of eight nests (M. Kissling unpublished data). The Pacific Seabird Group established the Kittlitz's Murrelet Technical Committee in 2008 to, amongst other things, act as a technical authority on ecology, distribution and ecology of the species; identify, encourage and facilitate research; address conservation problems, and; act as a liaison between research and management (M. Kissling in litt. 2010). Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue to monitor the species's population and trends in Alaska and Russia. Assess the impact of gill-net fisheries, and of boat traffic on the use of foraging areas. Develop innovative gill-net gear and fishing methods to reduce bycatch. Reduce habitat degradation and human disturbance through private sector codes of conduct. Enforce legislation to reduce the chances of oil-spills and other pollution. Tackle the threat of global climate change through international agreements. Estimate reproductive performance and other important population parameters to determine the most important factors affecting population stability. Identify and protect important courtship and nesting habitats. Identify important non-breeding areas.

Related state of the world's birds case studies

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. 2008. Critical News. Available at: #

Brazil, M. 2009. Birds of East Asia: eastern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, eastern Russia. Christopher Helm, London.

Day, R. H. 2006. Seabirds in the northern Gulf of Alaska and adjacent waters, October to May. Western Birds 37: 190-214.

Day, R. H.; Cooper, B. A.; Telfer, T. C. 2003. Decline of Townsend's (Newell's) Shearwaters (Puffinus auricularis newelli) on Kauai, Hawaii. The Auk 120: 669-679.

Day, R. H.; Kuletz, K. J.; Nigro, D. A. 1999. Kittlitz's Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris. In: Poole, A.; Gill, F. (ed.), The birds of North America, No. 435, pp. 1-28. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia and the American Ornithologists' Union, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

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

Kaler, R. S. A.; Kenney, L. A.; Sandercock, B. K. 2008. Breeding ecology of Kittlitz's Murrelets at Agattu Island, Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska. Abstracts, 35th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group, Blaine, Washington, 27 Feb - 2 Mar 2008, pp. 82. Little River, CA, USA, Pacific Seabird Group.

Kissling, M. L.; Gende, S. M.; Reid, M.; Lewis, S. B.; Lukacs, P. M.; 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.

Kissling, M. L.; Reid, M.; Lukacs, P.; Gende. S. M.; 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. American Ornithologists' Union, Waco, TX, USA.

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.

Stenhouse, I. J.; Studebaker, S.; Zwiefelhofer, D. 2008. Kittlitz's Murrelet Brachyramphus brevirostris in the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska. Marine Ornithology 36(1): 59-66.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Review of Native Species That Are Candidates for Listing as Endangered or Threatened; Annual Notice of Findings on Resubmitted Petitions; Annual Description of Progress on Listing Actions.

van Pelt, T. 2005. The mystery of seabird decline. WWF Arctic Bulletin: 15.

Further web sources of information
Audubon WatchList

Text account compilers
Benstead, P., Bird, J., Calvert, R., Lascelles, B., Symes, A., Taylor, J.

Day, R., Kuletz, K.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2014) Species factsheet: Brachyramphus brevirostris. Downloaded from on 13/07/2014. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2014) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 13/07/2014.

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 - Kittlitz’s murrelet (Brachyramphus brevirostris) 0

Key facts
Current IUCN Red List category Critically Endangered
Family Alcidae (Auks)
Species name author (Vigors, 1829)
Population size mature individuals
Population trend Decreasing
Distribution size (breeding/resident) 355,000 km2
Country endemic? No
Links to further information
- Additional Information on this species