U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Seabirds

Overview

What Are Seabirds? 

Seabirds are birds that spend almost all their time on or near the sea. They are medium-sized to large birds; most are between the size of a robin and a crow.  They get all their food from the water. Some spend the winter at sea, several hundred miles from land. Seabirds come to land to raise the young birds each summer. They nest on protected cliffs or islands, often in dense groups called colonies.

Seabirds have special adaptations that allow them to live at sea and get all their food there.  Some eat small fish or shrimp-like invertebrates called zooplankton, which they catch from the sea. Seabirds such as kittiwakes pick their prey from the water's surface. Others, such as auks and cormorants, dive for their prey and chase it underwater.

Who Are Alaska's Seabirds?

Many of Alaska's seabird species also nest across the Arctic, from Canada to Norway. But eight species nest only in Alaska and in nearby parts of Russia. These include the Red-faced Cormorant, the Red-legged Kittiwake, and Whiskered Auklet.

    Seabird Species in Alaska

    See All Species

    Horned Puffins
    Horned Puffins. Photo credit: USFWS.
    Common Murres on the water
    Common Murres on the water, Photo credit: USFWS.

    Alaska's Vast Seabird Population

    About 50 million seabirds nest on Alaska's coast each summer. This is 87% of all the seabirds in the United States. (Hawaii has the second most seabirds of any state.) Alaska's seabirds nest in more than 1600 seabird colonies around the coast.  Alaska has many seabirds for several reasons:

    • The state's coast is very long (30,000 miles);
    • The coast has many cliffs and islands that provide protected habitat for nesting seabirds; and
    • The seas near Alaska (the Arctic Ocean, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, and north Pacific Ocean) are very rich and produce large amounts of food for the birds.

    Conservation

    THREATS

    Alaskan seabirds nest far from cities and factories, which has protected them from many problems. However, the modern world still puts pressure on birds in Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service works to keep a balance between humans and seabirds. Some examples of problems in Alaska are:

    • Oil pollution can kill seabirds. Oil coats the birds' feathers, which can no longer keep cold water away from their skin. Most people know about the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound in 1989. Other small oil spills are quite common, and they sometimes kill birds too.
    • People can disturb birds by walking or making noise near their nesting colonies. Seabirds are frightened easily, and they can hurt their young chicks if they fly away in a hurry.
    • Introduced enemies like foxes or rats can get onto seabird islands. Birds have no defenses against new predators. Foxes and rats will kill and eat the birds or their young, which can be very dangerous for the population.
    • Fishing boats catch many of the same fish that birds eat. It is important to plan ahead so that both people and birds can find enough fish.
    • Fishing boats sometimes catch birds in their fishing gear. Birds caught on hooks or in nets usually drown. If fishing gear catches too many birds, their populations could start to decrease.
    • Plastic trash such as six-pack rings and fishing line can get tangled around birds and injure them.

     

    PLANS

    The Alaska Seabird Management Plan was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992.  For a copy of the plan please contact:  Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 1011 E. Tudor Road, MS 201, Anchorage, Alaska 99503 or call 907-786-3443

    Waterbirds for the Americas: North American Waterbird Conservation Plan:  North American Waterbird Conservation Plan, provides an overarching continental framework and guide for conserving waterbirds. It sets forth goals and priorities for waterbirds in all habitats from the Canadian Arctic to Panama, from Bermuda through the U.S. Pacific Islands, at nesting sites, during annual migrations, and during nonbreeding periods.

    Oiled Common Murre.
    Oiled Common Murre, M/V Selendang Ayu Oil Spill Unalaska 2004. Photo Credit: USFWS

    Projects

    DATA MANAGEMENT

    North Pacific Seabird Colony Database is a computerized, GIS-based database. It contains the locations and names of all Alaska's seabird breeding colonies, the species of birds that nest in each colony, and the numbers of each species. 

    SURVEYS

    Murre colony. USFWS.

    We count birds in some colonies (or in parts of the colonies) each summer. This tells us whether the birds' populations are healthy. If a population is getting smaller, we study it and try to learn what the problem is.

    In the area that was affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, we study seabirds to learn whether they are recovering from the oil. We count the birds in winter and summer. We study how many eggs the birds lay and how many young birds they raise each summer. We also study how they find their food at sea.

    We work with people who will be on fishing boats to learn how many birds are caught in fishing gear. This tells us whether too many birds are caught each year.

    OUTREACH

    We work with Alaska Native communities to learn how they use seabirds in their traditional diets and cultures.

    We have produced materials for school children, including a poster, "Help Protect Alaska's Seabirds" (527kb, pdf).

    Reports & Publications

    To receive a copy of a publication or report listed here, please contact:
    Migratory Bird Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
    1011 E. Tudor Road, Anchorage, Alaska 99503
    or call 907-786-3443

    Breeding Status, Population Trends, and Diets of Seabirds in Alaska1999-2001 (2mb pdf)

    Publications

    Lukacs, P. M., M. L. Kissling, M. Reid, S. M. Gende, and S. B. Lewis. 2010. Testing assumptions of distance sampling on a pelagic seabird. Condor 112:455-459.

    Kissling, M. L., M. Reid, P. M. Lukacs, S. M. Gende, and S. B. Lewis. 2007. Understanding abundance patterns of a declining seabird: implications for monitoring. Ecological Applications 17:2164-2174.

    Golet, G.H., J.A. Schmutz, D.B. Irons, and J.A. Estes. 2004. Determinants of reproductive costs in the long-lived Black-legged Kittiwake: A multiyear experiment. Ecological Monographs 74:353-372.

    Stephensen, S.W., and D.B. Irons. 2004. A biogeographic comparison of seabird colonies in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. Marine Ornithology In press.

    Ainley, D.G., R.G. Ford, E.D. Brown, R.M. Suryan, and D.B. Irons. 2003. Prey availability, interference competition, and the geographic structure of seabird colonies: a study of black-legged kittiwakes and forage fish in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Ecology 84:709-723.

    Jodice, P.G.R., D.D. Roby, D.D., R.M. Suryan, D.B. Irons, D.B.; A.M. Kaufman, K.R. Turco, and G.H. Visser. 2003. Variation in energy expenditure among black-legged kittiwakes: Effects of activity-specific metabolic rates and activity budgets. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 76: 375-388.

    Kuletz, K.J., Stephensen, S.W., Labunski, E.A., Irons, D.B. and Brenneman, K.M. 2003. Changes in distribution and abundance of Kittlitz's Murrelets relative to glacial recession in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ornithology.

    Peterson, C.H., S.D. Stanley, J.W. Short, D. Esler, J.L. Bodkin, B.E. Ballachey, and D.B. Irons. 2003. Long-term ecosystem response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Science 302(5653): 2082-2086.

    Golet, G. H., P. E. Seiser, A. D. McGuire, D. D. Roby, J. B. Fischer, K. J. Kuletz, D. B. Irons, T. A. Dean, S. C. Jewett, S. H. Newman. 2002. Long-term direct and indirect effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Pigeon Guillemots in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Ecology Progress Series 241:287-304.

    Lance, B.K., D.B Irons, S.J. Kendall, and L.L. McDonald. 2001. An evaluation of marine bird population trends following the Exxon Valvez oil spill, Prince William Sound, Alaska. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 42:298-309.

    Maniscalco, J.M., W.D. Ostrand, R.M. Suryan, and D.B. Irons. 2001. Passive interference competition by glaucous-winged gulls on black-legged kittiwakes: a cost of feeding in flocks. Condor, 103:616-619.

    Marks, D.K. and K. J. Kuletz. 2001. Use of treeless and forested habitat by marbled murrelets in south-central Alaska. Waterbirds 24:161-168.

    Suryan, R.M. and D.B. Irons. 2001. Colony and population dynamics of black-legged kittiwakes in a heterogeneous environment. Auk 118:636-649.

    Suryan, R.M., D.B. Irons, M. Kaufman, J. Benson, P.G.R. Jodice, D.D. Roby, E.D. Brown. 2001. Short-term fluctuations in forage fish availability and the effect on prey selection and brood-rearing in the black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. Marine Ecology Progress Series 236:273-287.

    Fischer, J. B., and C. R. Griffin 2000. Can burrow-nesting seabirds be identified from their burrow dimensions? Wildlife Society Bulletin 28:586-591.

    Golet, G.H., D.B. Irons, and D.P. Costa. 2000. Energy costs of chick rearing in black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla
    Canadian Journal of Zoology 78:982-991.

    Golet, G.H., K.J. Kuletz, D. D. Roby, D.B. Irons. 2000. Adult prey choice affects chick growth and reproductive success of Pigeon Guillemots. Auk 117:82-91.

    Konyukhov, N. B., V. A. Zubakin, J. Williams and J. B. Fischer. 2000. Breeding biology of the whiskered auklet (Aethia pygmaea): Incubation, chick growth and feather development. Biology Bulletin 27(2):164-170. Translated from Izvestiya Akademii Nauk, Seriya Biologicheskaya, No 2. pp. 205-212.

    Irons, D.B., S.J. Kendall, W.P. Erickson, L.L. McDonald, B.K. Lance. 2000. Nine years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill: effects on marine birds in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Condor 102:723-737.

    Suryan, R.M., D.B.  Irons, and J. Benson. 2000. Prey switching and variable foraging strategies of black-legged kittiwakes and the effect on reproductive success. Condor 102:374-384.

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

    Golet, G.H., and D.B. Irons. 1999. Raising young reduces body condition and fat stores in Black-legged Kittiwakes. Oecologia 120:530-538.

    Kuletz, K.J. and J.F. Piatt. 1999. Juvenile marbled murrelet nurseries and the productivity index. Wilson Bulletin. 111:257-261.

    Agler, B.A., S.J. Kendall, and D.B. Irons. 1998. Abundance and distribution of marbled and Kittlitz's murrelets in southcentral and southeast Alaska. Condor 100:254-265.

    Golet, G.H., D.B. Irons, and J. A. Estes. 1998. Survival costs of chick rearing in Black-legged Kittiwakes. Journal of Animal Ecology 67:827-841.

    Irons, D.B. 1998. Foraging area fidelity of individual seabirds in relation to tidal cycles and flock feeding. Ecology 79:647-655.

    Kuletz, K.J. and S.J. Kendall. 1998. A productivity index for marbled murrelets in Alaska based on surveys at sea. Journal of Wildlife Management 62(2):446-460.

    Ostrand, W.D., K.O Coyle, G.S. Drew, J.M. Maniscalco, and D.B. Irons. 1998. Selection of forage-fish schools by murrelets and tufted puffins in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Condor 100: 86-297.

    Irons, D.B. 1996. Size and productivity of black-legged kittiwake colonies in Prince William Sound before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Pages 738-747 in S. D. Rice, R. B. Spies, D. A. Wolfe, and B. A. Wright, editors. Proceedings of the Exxon Valdez oil spill symposium. American Fisheries Society Symposium 18.

    Kuletz, K.J. 1996. Marbled murrelet abundance and breeding activity at Naked Island, Prince William Sound, and Kachemak Bay, Alaska, before and after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Pp 770-784. In: J. Rice, R.B. Spies, D.A. Wolfe, B.A.Wright (eds.) Proc. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Symp. Am. Fish. Soc. No. 18.

    Kuletz, K. J. and D. K. Marks. 1996. Post-fledging behavior of a radio-tagged juvenile marbled murrelet. Journal of Field Ornithology 68:421-425.

    Carter, H.R. and K.J. Kuletz. 1995. Mortality of marbled murrelets due to oil pollution in North America. Pages 261-269. In: C.J. Ralph, G.L. Hunt, Jr., M.G. Raphael, and J.F. Piatt (eds). Ecology and Conservation of the Marbled Murrelet. USDA For. Serv. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-152.

    Kuletz, K.J., D.K. Marks, N.L. Naslund and M.B. Cody. 1995. Marbled murrelet activity relative to forest characteristics in the Naked Island area, Prince William Sound, Alaska. Pages 4-11. Northwestern Naturalist 76:4-11.

    Kuletz, K.J., D.K. Marks, N.L. Naslund, N.J. Goodson and M.B. Cody. 1995. Inland habitat suitability for the marbled murrelet in Southcentral Alaska. Pages 141-149. In: C.J. Ralph, G.L. Hunt, Jr., M.G. Raphael, and J.F. Piatt (eds). Ecology and Conservation of the Marbled Murrelet. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-152.

    Marks, D.K., K.J. Kuletz and N.L. Naslund. 1995. Use of boat-based surveys to determine coastal inland habitat associations of marbled murrelets in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Northwestern Naturalist 76:63-72.

    Naslund, N.L., K.J. Kuletz, M.B Cody, and D.K. Marks. 1995. Tree and habitat characteristics and reproductive success at marbled murrelet tree nests in Alaska. Northwestern Naturalist 76:12 - 25.

    Marks, D.K. and N.L. Naslund. 1994. Sharp-shinned hawk preys on a marbled murrelet nesting in old-growth forest. Wilson Bulletin 106:565-567.

    Irons, D.B., R.G. Anthony, and J.A. Estes. 1986. Foraging strategies of glaucous-winged gulls in a rocky intertidal community. Ecology 67:1460-1474.

    Kuletz, K.J. 1983. Mechanisms and consequences of foraging behavior in a population of breeding pigeon guillemots. Unpubl. M.Sc. thesis. University California, Irvine. 79 pp.