For visitors to the Monterey Bay Habitats exhibit, our common murres are anything but common. These birds are often mistaken for penguins as they “fly” fearlessly underwater past fishes that are five times their size.
But despite their speedy ways, many of our murres are more than 20 years old. Most were deemed non-releasable after being rescued from the 1986 Apex Houston oil spill near Long Beach, California. In late December, an opportunity arose to exhibit some new murres in a unique exchange with the Montréal Biodôme in Canada.
Two of our birds were sent to the Biodôme in early December. In return, the Biodôme sent seven captive-born murres to the Aquarium. Then, on December 29, all 11—seven newcomers and four existing birds—went on exhibit, the most murres that we’ve ever displayed.
One reason that the Aquarium participated in the exchange was to allow its wild-born birds to have chicks. “We’re not set up to breed,” says Aimee Greenebaum, associate curator of aviculture, “but I always wanted to send them somewhere that was.” The birds sent here from the Biodôme, in contrast, are captive born, and not of interest as breeding stock.
Fortunately, they make very lively and entertaining exhibit birds. The newcomers include four females: Kiwi, Plum, Shrimp and Ruby; and three males: Pepper, Pickles and Tomato. They’re named according to their band colors.
Aviculturist Mika Yoshida says it was “exciting to get the new birds” because of their youth and energy. She says they’re “huge eaters” and are hand-fed silversides and capelin twice per day, including special vitamins. Feeding sessions also present great opportunities for enrichments. Food might be hidden in ice, or covered with shells or rocks, as a challenge.
Mika expects they’ll get along well with other animals on exhibit. “They’re used to huge colonies, so they should integrate really well. We want them to be as unafraid as possible. Pickles is already showing a comfort level with us, and we hope to encourage this with all the birds.”
Murres can often be seen on rock outcroppings on the Central Coast and in Big Sur, where they live to be 40 years old, and return annually to the same colony. They follow their food out on the open seas, and spend a lot of time on the water. Common murres are “pursuit divers,” which means they forage for food by swimming underwater using their wings for propulsion. Dives usually last less than a minute, but they can swim underwater for distances of 160 feet (depths of 600 feet have been recorded). When young common murres are ready to fledge, they make one hopeful jump off a cliff and into the air—a most uncommon approach.
Unfortunately, murres are heavily impacted during oil spills. “I’m hoping the more people learn about them and appreciate them, the more action they’ll take to decrease the chance of oil spills,” says Aimee.
“These birds live right outside our back door but because they spend most of their lives out in the ocean, most people don’t get a chance to see them up close. Our exhibit provides visitors a unique opportunity to see these beautiful birds doing what they do best: diving!”