Summer of the Seabirds

By Ms Baker

Many of my students don’t know that during the summer of 2004 I spent three months working as a research assistant studying seabirds on a remote island in the Bering Sea.

On my four-wheeler heading out to study seabirds such as this adorable black-legged kittiwake chick.

I was inspired to blog about my experience after reading Hannah Water’s post, “Seabirds as indicators of marine ecosystem health: an introduction.”  I discovered the post when Jason Goldman mentioned it in his list of amazing female science bloggers (FYI: Waters was recently interviewed by Carl on Extreme Biology).

In her post, Waters explains why seabirds can indicate the health of an ecosystem.  Seabirds sit at the top of the marine food chain.  Scientists refer to different levels in the food chain as trophic levels.  The levels include primary producer, primary consumer, secondary consumer, tertiary consumer, etc.  The number of levels depends on the type of ecosystem.  What trophic level would a black-legged kittiwake occupy in the ecosystem?

Below is an image of a marine food web (click to enlarge).  What would you expect to happen if the number of amphipods were to decrease?

Photo source: Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA)

Animals that sit on the top of the food chain rely on the health of organisms on lower levels of the chain.  Therefore, one can assume that if animals at the top of the food chain (like seabirds) are healthy, then animals lower in the chain must be as well.

But, how do you measure seabird health?

Well…How long do adults survive?  How often do they successfully reproduce?  How fast do chicks grow and what is their weight when they leave the nest?  How much time do adults just hang around the nest vs how much time do they spend searching for food?  These measurements were suggested in a landmark paper by D.K. Cairns in 1987.  Do you agree that these are good indicators of seabird health?  Why or why not?

These measurements were the basis of my research on seabirds.  In a series of posts, I will discuss my work with these seabirds in more detail and the findings from the research project I worked on. But, before I begin I should first give you a list of the seabirds I studied:

  • Parakeet Auklet
  • Crested Auklet
  • Least Auklet
  • Black-legged Kittiwake
  • Red-legged Kittiwake
  • Common Murre
  • Thick-billed Murre

Can you find any great youtube videos about these birds?


Cairns, D. K. (1987). Seabirds as indicators of marine food supplies Biological Oceanography, 5, 261-271

Waters, H. (2010, October 5). Seabirds as indicators of marine ecosystem health: an introduction [Web log message]. Retrieved from

  • Deirdre

    After reading a little bit about the Black-Legged Kittiwake, I was interested in learning more about these animals. I learned that adults will often have white heads and underbodies, while their backs are gray, and their legs are black. Their wing tops are also black, without any white spots. These animals are found along the northern coasts breeding and are out on the ocean in the winter. After researching videos on these birds, I found limited selection, but did find this video of a Black-Legged Kittiwake standing and looking around on a rock. From this video we get to see what they look like, and also get an idea of their distinct call, which you can hear in the background. The call of a Black-Legged Kittiwake usually sounds like “Kitti-weeeik” or “e-e-eh”. There is a recording of these calls found on my source website.



  • Anonymous

    I decided to look at the Common Murre. These birds are common around more northern coastlines, such as areas on the west coast of the US which include ranges from Northern Oregon, Washington State, British Columbia, and Southern Alaska. They can also be found on the east coast, from areas of New England up to the Canadian Maritimes. These birds can also be found on the coasts of Northeast Russia and Northern Europe. The bird is not huge in size, and has a black head and back, but its underside is white in color. Just as a fun fact, the eggs of these birds are very pointy at the top, and when pushed, rotate in a full circle. A possible reason onto why the eggs are shaped as such is since that if the eggs were in that shape, they would not fall over as much as other eggs. Also, this bird is mostly silent at sea, but when at its colony, the bird makes an “urr” guttural sound when it is performing activities.


    Video of Murres:

  • Hannah Waters

    Hey Stacy,

    I can’t wait to hear about your research! I did research on Common Murres for a summer and I’m interested to know how yours compares.

    As to whether seabirds make good indicators, I think they do a pretty good job but are not perfect. Ecology is not usually a very clean science: there are so many factors that affect the results, especially in the ocean. For example, I don’t think a one-year change is enough to show that the system is more or less healthy, but rather takes many years of collecting data. But those trends can help us learn a lot more than we can see just staring down through the water from the surface!

    Can’t wait to learn more,

  • Mmaugeri

    Like Deirdre and Zach researched the Black-Legged Kittiwake, and the Common Murre, I wanted to research the Parakeet Auklet. This species of bird has a stocky body, a round, red upturned bill, dark feathers on the top of the body and white on the underparts, and the wings are usually round and broad. They do not form large groups or flocks, but prefer rather small groups to live in. Their bill has supposedly been adapted because of their diet: they eat gelatinous fish. They live around islands, cliffs or rocks. They also eat other invertebrates and fish eggs. They sleep in bare rocks, and they catch their food by diving deep into the water and using their broad wings. This species is very vulnerable to new predators or threats in their habitat.

    I found this great video on what the species looks like and a sample of their typical behavior:

    To hear what these birds sound like:


  • Anonymous

    Hey guys I decided to look at the the Thick-billed Murre. I found out that it is a carnivore. Its diet consits of Fish, crustaceans, squid, and other marine invertebrates. It has a black head and back, and white underbelly, it weighs from about 26- 52 oz. I also found out that this bird uses its stubby wings to fly through the water. It is one of the deepest undewater divers of all birds, and can stay underwater for about 3 minutes.

    Taking off into the air is kind of awkward for this bird, but once it gets there it can fly up to 75 mph. the thick billed mure doesn’t build nests, instead the female joins others of her species in a large colony, and lays an egg on a narrow cliff ledge. Then she arranges pebbles and other debris close to the egg, cementing them in place with feces to form a support that prevents the egg from getting dislodged

    to find more information on this bird or any other you can use:

    National geographics website also has information on these birds (and other animals) :

  • Anonymous

    I found it very interesting that the animals in this food chain all rely on the health of the other amphipods. So to answer Ms. Baker’s question about what would you expect to happen if the number of amphipods were to decrease? I would expect that since the number of amphipods is decreasing then the health of the amphipods is decreasing too since these amphipods all rely on each other. The health would decrease among the amphipods remaining because the amphipods that did not survive most likely did not surivive becuase of health reasons.
    I also decided to reasearch one of these birds like some of my classmates above have done. I was interested in reaserching and learning more about the Crested Auklet since I thought it would have a unique appearance because of the word “crest”. The Crested Auklet has an orange beak and almost like a little tuft of feathers on top of its beak, hence how it got its name. They have gray/ black bodies and a white horizontal line right next to the eye. These birds live on islands and coastlines of the Bering Sea.
    At first, when i looked at the picture of the Crested Auklet I thought that the crest on their beak or head seemed maybe somewhat not important. But, I after I read that this is what leads to courtship rituals, the males and females with larger crests are more preferred. The female Crested Auklets are more agressive than males and seek males with larger crests for dominance. The Crested Auklets lay a single egg per clutch and their offspring is their main priority, and searches for its prey euphausiids, a shrimplike marine animal. The offspring of the Crested Auklets will reach adults size in about 33 days in its nest.


    Here are some videos I found on youtube-

  • Ms Baker

    Great info Sara! Whenever I look at Crested Auklets I always think of a Dr. Seuss character. They look so silly! In your research did you happen to find any info on their unique smell?

  • Anonymous

    Great research Sara! After doing a bit more research on Crested Auklets, I came across some more information about them and their unique smell. Both sexes of the Crested Auklets are known to have a distinct, citrus-like smell. Isn’t that so interesting? The birds release this citrus scent out of their feathers and rub it on each other during courtship. This behavior, known as alloanointing, has only recently been discovered among birds. According to researcher Hector Douglas, this citrus odor may defend birds from parasites, such as ticks. As you can see, the citrus odor of the Crested Auklets is very useful in their lives–not only playing a part in courtship rituals, but also protecting these birds from parasites.


  • Anonymous

    Similar to the Black-Legged Kittiwake that Deirdre discussed in her comment is another closely related species of bird, known as the Red-Legged Kittiwake. The Red-Legged Kittiwake is a small gull, which feeds on fish in deep waters. The Red-Legged Kittiwake can often be found feeding in groups with the Black-Legged Kittiwake. Although the Red-Legged Kittiwake has some similar features with the Black-Legged Kittiwake, it is known to have a larger eye, which benefits this species of bird during night feeding. The Red-Legged Kittiwake is found breeding in only four locations throughout the world, which all happen to be located in Bering Sea. More than 75% of the Red-Legged Kittiwake population breeds on St. George Island on high, sea cliffs. Red-Legged Kittiwakes often breed in the same areas as Black-Legged Kittiwakes, who are much more common and widespread than Red-Legged Kittiwakes. The populations of both species of Kittiwakes declined in the 1980s, most likely due to a food shortage. Other than the facts mentioned here, little is known about Red-Legged Kittiwakes. Can anyone find any more interesting facts about this species of bird? Do they have specific or unique courtship rituals? Do they have a unique mating call?

    Included is a video of the Red-Legged Kittiwake washing itself:


  • Anonymous

    Great info Alice! I learned so much more that I expected. To add to your comment I did a little research on the Red-Legged Kittiwake to discover that the reason for their population decline in the 1980′s was because of reproductive failure and also lack of food. This species can be distinguished
    from Black-legged Kittiwakes by the leg color, a shorter and more curved bill, and darker back and upper wing color. Also, another distinction between the Red-Legged Kittiwake and the Black-Legged Kittiwake is that they are less vocal than them, but have a much higher-pitched call. An interesting fact to add is that when both red-legged and black-legged Kittiwakes feed, they create feeding groups called “melees.” It is said that very is little known about their migration habits away from their breeding areas. These birds breed in colonies on cliffs, and arrive in breeding colonies in April and leave in September.

  • Anonymous

    Ms. Baker, I had no idea that you had this amazing opportunity. Congratulations! I decided to do some research on the Crested Auklet. I have come to learn that they are seabird that stands about nine inches tall. It is made up of brown and black feathers and when it is in breeding season it has a” white plume beside its eyes and a crest of feathers that curls forward on the top of its head”. It has a bright orange bill, a very short tail and webbed black feet. Males and females look the same. They feed on plankton and nest in large colonies. They tend to spend much of their time in the water. It is said that they are “built for the water.” The mostly live on coasts in Alaska surrounding the Bering Sea with a lot of rocks and boulders. An interesting fact to know is that the Crested Auklet rub a citrus-like scent, secreted in feathers on their backs, on each other during courtship. This behavior is called alloanointing. It is well known among some mammals, such as peccaries, but until now was not documented among birds. Related birds are :
    Parakeet Auklet
    Tufted Puffin
    Cassin’s Auklet
    Horned Puffin
    Rhinoceros Auklet
    Atlantic Puffin
    Whiskered Auklet

    Can you find similarities and differences between any of the listed birds and the Crested Auklet. Can you find any other courtship qualities that the birds have with each other?
    Here is a video of a close up with a Crested Auklet:

  • Anonymous

    I find some information about Parakeet Auklet after read the post. The parakeet auklet is a small, chubby seabird about nine to ten inches tall. It has dark black feathers on its head and back, a white throat and chest, and a white plume behind its yellow eyes. It has a distinctive bright red bill. In summer its eye plume may disappear. Unlike other auklets, the parakeet auklet doesn’t nest in large colonies. One parakeet auklet will sit on a cliff ledge near its nest and watch for danger, while the other auklet incubates the egg or tends to the chick. And they nests on island coasts and cliffs. it’s a really interesting seabird. I always think that birds are always nests on the trees. I think the reason why they are nesting on the island coasts is because it’s easier to find food. And they don’t usually live with a large sum of parakeet auklet, so they don’t need a big space to nest. They are also very smart, they know how to protect their children and themselves when the mother is producing the kids.
    I also find a video on YouTube about parakeet Auklets.


  • Ms Baker

    Great job. Okay, NO MORE facts about the birds. Someone should now look into the use of seabirds as indicators of ecosystem health. What do you think about the measurements taken to monitor seabird health? What other measurements are being used?

    My next post will get into some of the tools being used to track and monitor seabird activity. Can you find any methods that you find interesting?

    Again, NO MORE facts about the birds.

  • Deirdre

    I read an excerpt from a paper all about testing birds and seeing their relation with the ecosystem. This test consisted of 6 years worth of data on the biology of four species of birds. This would usually mean testing their breeding success an diet. These results are compared with changes in fishing, to relate the amount of food available to the amount consumed. The long term research combines tradition population counting with behavioral monitoring and environmental monitoring.

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