There’s good news and bad news this week about the status of the iconic marbled murrelet.
The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission announced the good news: The coastal bird has been relisted from being a threatened species to an endangered one.
The bad? Circumstances that led to the new listing.
Now the state will have to draft survival guidelines and a management plan to ensure the seabird survives — and thrives — in Oregon.
The murrelet was first listed as a threatened species 23 years ago, and the petition to “uplist” the bird began in 2016 by Cascadia Wildlands, Oregon Wild, Coast Range Forest Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Audubon Society of Portland and the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Marbled murrelets are dove-sized seabirds that range along the North American coast from southeastern Alaska to Northern California. They forage in marine waters, usually within a few miles of shore, dive for schooling fish such as sand lance, anchovy or herring, and like puffins or murres, their close relatives, they are characterized by a stubby bodies and wings. Unlike puffins or murres, they do not form breeding colonies, nesting nowhere near rocky headlands or islands.
It took birdwatchers and ornithologists almost 200 years to figure out where they went, as the birds are small and fast.
But in 1974, a tree surgeon climbed a 300-year-old Douglas fir in Santa Cruz, California, and peering over a branch 45 meters off the ground, he spotted a tiny murrelet, according to U.S. Forest Service reports.
Turns out, the marbled murrelets lay their eggs on moss on the broad upper branches of conifer trees. When the old-growth trees were being cut in the heyday of the timber industry, so too was the populations of murrelets.
Steep population declines landed the bird on the threatened list under the Endangered Species Act in Oregon, California and Washington.
Loggers blame the little spotted owl, but the murrelet’s population decline also contributed to the inclusion of logging restrictions on almost 24 million acres of land in the United States.
But it didn’t work.
There were fewer than 20,000 murrelets in the three Western states, and their population continues to decline as much as 4 percent a year. In Alaska, the populations have crashed by 71 percent since the 1990s, to about 270,000.
Scientists are now trying to figure out if, like the spotted owl, a predator is eating or driving off the birds. The spotted owl is believed to be driven off by the barred owl, as it has done on the East Coast, but that hasn’t been proven yet.
A theory is that crows pilfer the nests for the eggs, driving the murrelets out of their territory.
But the only solution proposed so far — as it was for the barred owl‚ involved going into the woods and shooting the predators.
Only 30 active nests were found in Oregon in 1994 — but like the birds, they’re not easy to locate.
The birds nest anywhere from 2 to 50 miles inland, traveling to those nests at dawn and dusk in a fast, straight line. And once they land, there’s nary a peep.
At night, they roost on the ocean, and there is little data regarding predation of the birds.
Scientists wonder if changing ocean conditions — increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean is making it more acidic — affect the birds, or if other marine animals avoiding warmer waters are passing through this area and affecting the birds.
Are they being eaten? Are they being scared into not laying eggs?
Teams of Oregon State University researchers originally planned to catch the elusive birds this mating season so they can band them and determine where they go. Once the researchers find the nests — using drones that follow the ping of the VHF tag on the birds’ ankles — they can be monitored to determine if there is a successful hatching.
But poor foraging conditions resulted in no birds nesting, the research indicates.
A study in Washington showed an 80 percent failure rate in the murrelet’s success in raising chicks. Many starved or were abandoned, the research said, indicating there was little food for the murrelet’s to eat.
A study in Alaska in the 1990s showed a crash in the herring population resulted in a correlating crash in the number of murrelets hatched.
Ornithologists and environmentalists now hope plans can be crafted to revitalize the bird’s population.