Wildlife of the Week!

© Katie Smith/ Five Star Whale Watching. An adult pigeon guillemot in breeding plumage is spotted along a shore of the Salish Sea.

Welcome to another segment of “Wildlife of the Week”! The Salish Sea is rich in seabird diversity, with each creature bringing forwards its own pivotal role in the ecosystem. This week we focus on the pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba); a fairly recognizable and small-medium sized seabird. This bird is roughly crow-sized and is easily differentiated as an adult by its bright red feet. What is your favourite seabird? Share with us in the comments and learn more about the pigeon guillemot below!

This seabird has two distinct color morphs as an adult. In the breeding season (summer) the bird retains a jet-black color with distinct white wing patches. The bird also develops a bright red lining of the mouth during this time. In the non-breeding season (winter), the bird is mostly overall white with a mottled dark back, wingtips and head. The bill is relatively thin and pointed. The bird grows to a weight of about 450-550 grams, has small wings and is related to other similar seabirds such as murres and puffins. 

The range of this seabird is quite straightforward; it is found in the northern Pacific, along the West Coast from Alaska to California as well as in the Bering Sea. Compared to other relatives like puffins, the pigeon guillemot spends a high majority of its time close to the shore, especially along rocky coastlines, inshore waters, cliffs or by openings in pack ice (these spots may be far from land, however). The rocky/cliff habitats are often away from predators, which is of course beneficial. Interestingly enough, this bird can navigate extremely steep cliffs by use of its strong flapping wings and clawed, webbed feet.

The pigeon guillemot is capable of feeding in very deep waters (up to almost 150 feet), but it finds more success in shallower areas. The bird usually dives between 33-66 feet to feed. The bird searches the seafloor for prey, and is propelled by its strong wings. Its feet may also play a role in swimming propulsion, instead of just steering, which is unlike other birds highly related to this species (in the family). The pigeon guillemot’s diet is diverse and includes many types of food, namely small fish and invertebrates such as octopus, crabs, worms and shellfish. It is believed the bright feet possibly assist in scaring bottom-dwelling/perhaps hidden fish into action, which aids in prey capture. 

The pigeon guillemot may choose from a diversity of sites for nesting. These sites are often in sand, gravel, pebbles, shells, soil, old burrows, driftwood, other debris, or within cracks and crevices of rocks/ cliffs. Sometimes, the bird will create and dig their own space. These sites are likely chosen by the male, and will be used for several years over. Courtship behaviours are present, and breeding begins around 3-5 years. Young usually arrive in a clutch of 1-2 and are cooperatively fed by the parents. The tendency of the guillemot to feed closer to land allows them to support more than one young, which is unlike many of their relatives. The young will reach the sea and become independent of the nest around 29-54 days. 

Seabirds are integral members of the marine ecosystem. The pigeon guillemot is in a population state of relatively moderate concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan. Several factors contributed to the bird’s lessened population at the turn of the century, which included human impacts, pollution and possible food shortages in warm years. These threats still exist today, of course. 

A truly fascinating species, the pigeon guillemot; try out some trivia below to test your knowledge! 

  1. True or False? The pigeon guillemot may have greenish/bluish eggs. (ANS: True). 
  2. True or False? This bird is an auk. (ANS: True). 
  3. Breeding may also be _____successfull in warm temperatures. (ANS: Less). 

BONUS CHALLENGE: 

Name a few species highly related to the pigeon guillemot (answers may vary). 

E.g. black guillemot, marbled murrelet. 

Article Authored By: Alexa D., B.Sc./ Five Star Whale Watching. 


To learn more about this bird, visit our References below!

TheCornellLab.

National Audubon Society.

eBird.

Slater Museum of Natural History: University of Puget Sound.