Common Murre Uria aalge Scientific name definitions

David G. Ainley, David N. Nettleship, and Anne E. Storey
Version: 2.0 — Published August 6, 2021

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Breeding adult

Large black-and-white seabird with a long, thin bill. Breeding birds have an entirely black head.

Nonbreeding adult/immature

In water, looks rather ducklike with a long and slender body and bill. Nonbreeding birds have a white throat, chin, and cheek that wraps up behind the eye.

Breeding adult
Nonbreeding adult/immature
Nonbreeding adult/immature
Breeding adult

Stands upright like a penguin. "Bridled" form in the Atlantic region has a white eyering that extends across the side of its face.

Breeding adult and juvenile
Breeding adult

At sea often congregates in large rafts. Long-necked seabird with a long, thin bill. In good light appears dark brown and white.

Breeding adult

Large, black-and-white penguinlike seabird. Breeds in dense colonies on island cliff ledges, slopes, and rocky outcrops.

Parents (back left and front right) and chicks (front left and back right).

Common Murre can be confused with murrelets, but their feathering is loosely textured ('fluffy') unlike murrelets found at sea, and they are typically seen in association with the male parent.

Three Common Murres (left) and two Thick-billed Murres (Uria lomvia)(right).

Distinguished from Thick-billed Murre by a longer, thinner bill, tapering gradually to the tip, compared to notably decurved culmen in Thick-billed Murre. Note, longer, slimmer body and neck; bill dark along tomium; dorsal body plumage overall browner; streaking on flanks and underwing coverts darker; and white of breast meeting brown throat in a straight line or a shallow, inverted “U” (compared to a sharp “V” in Thick-billed Murre).

Common Murres and Thick-billed Murres.

Note, Thick-billed Murre has white stripe along cutting edge of upper mandible, except for some individuals during winter.

Razorbills and Common Murres (in center).

Razorbill's bill is deeper and blunter, and more laterally flattened.

Razorbills and Common Murres.
Razorbills and Common Murres in flight.

Common Murre is distinguished from Razorbill (Alca torda) by much slimmer build, browner coloration, and much longer, sharper bill.

Common Murre in Formative Plumage

Formative and First Alternate Common Murres can be aged by retained, brown juvenile, upperwing primary coverts contrasting with replaced, blacker secondary coverts, and by their small bills.

Common Murre in Formative Plumage

The face is whiter in Formative Common Murres than in many adults, especially in southern populations; note also the smaller bill.

Common Murre in First Alternate Plumage

First Alternate Pluamge varies from appearing like Formative Plumage (as in this bird) to having mostly dark heads like Definitive Alternate Plumage. Here only some scattered head fathers appear to be first alternate. Note also the smaller bill than is found in adults.

Common Murre undergoing Second Prebasic Molt

Common Murres molt all remiges synchronously during prebasic molts, becoming flightless for several weeks. Note the retained brown juvenile primary coverts, indicating a 1-yr-old bird undergoing the Second Prebasic Molt.

Second Basic Common Murre.

Second Basic Plumage resembles Definitive Basic Plumage (including black primary coverts that do not contrast with the rest of the upper wing) but bill size is intermediate between birds in Formative and Definitive Basic plumages.

Common Murre in Basic Plumage, with dark head

Head coloration varies substantially in Basic Plumage, up to entirely dark in some individuals. This results from an early molt before plumage-signalling has switched from producing dark feathers during prealternate molting periods. This appears to be more common in Second Basic Plumage but the bill size in this individual indicates Definitive Basic Plumage

Definitive Basic Common Murre

Most Common Murres in Definitive Basic Plumage, especially in northern populations (where this plumage can be worn from October to March), show extensive white to the throat and sides of the head behind the eye; note the large and black bill which helps determine age.

Definitive Basic Common Murre

In southern breeding populations, such as those of California, Definitive Basic Plumage can be worn for as little as two months (October-November) and can show a variable amount of black feathering to the white areas of the head. Note the black primary coverts, not contrasting with the rest of the upperwing feathers, which distinguishes Basic from Formative plumages.

Definitive Alternate Common Murres, 'Bridled Morph'

Definitive Alternate Plumage is similar to Definitive Basic Plumage except that the head and throat are replaced with entirely dark alternate feathers. Birds from Atlantic Populations, of the "Bridled Morph" can also show white eye rings and and a thin postocular streak.

Leucistic Common Murre
Leucistic Common Murre
Melanistic Common Murre (right)

All-dark Common Murres are encountered from time to time and may represent melanistic plumage or result from undergoing the Preabasic Molt during the period of the Prealternate Molt, when pigment-deposition signals are for dark feathers. The two left-hand birds are in Definitive Alternate Plumage, indicated by the entirely dark head feathering.

Example of habitat; Argyll and Bute, Scotland.
Example of cliff-ledge habitat; Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Example of cliff-ledge habitat; Quebec, Canada.
Example of habitat; California, United States.
Large colony on Southeast Farallon Island; California, United States.
Example of habitat; Oregon, United States.
Large colony on Triangle Island; British Columbia, Canada.
Bird with fish prey.

A wing-propelled pursuit diver.

Birds underwater.
Two birds performing courtship display.
Common Murres copulating.
Group of Common Murres.

Common Murres are among the most social of colonial birds.

Flying above whales.
Red fox (silver phase) (Vulpes vulpes) preying upon Common Murre.
Large colony flushed by Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).
Nest site with egg.

Eggs are laid on bare rock, or less commonly, on soil or guano.

Adult with egg.

Generally, eggs are dark green to blue-green or turquoise with black spots and streaking; however, can be lighter to tan, pinkish, and white; sometimes without spots or streaking.

Young bird with parent.

Young are accompanied at sea by male parent, which guards and leads it to prime foraging areas and provides it food.

Macaulay Library Photos for Common Murre

Top-rated photos submitted to the Macaulay Library via eBird. Note: Our content editors have not confirmed the species identification for these photos.

Recommended Citation

Ainley, D. G., D. N. Nettleship, and A. E. Storey (2021). Common Murre (Uria aalge), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, P. G. Rodewald, and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.commur.02