The life of an enigmatic seabird


One of the great North American ornithological mysteries in recent history was solved not by a scientist or a birder, but by a tree-trimmer. Working in an ancient Douglas fir in California’s Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Hoyt Foster began to lop off a limb 148 feet above ground when suddenly he was confronted by a "squashed-up porcupine with a beak sticking out." The "porcupine" was a marbled murrelet, a chunky seabird whose nesting habits had confounded the scientific community until that afternoon in 1974. Because of that discovery, and subsequent research, the marbled murrelet (pronounced "mer-lit") is now known to nest almost exclusively in the fragmented old-growth forests along the Pacific Northwest.

Author Maria Mudd Ruth presents an entertaining investigation of this elusive member of the auk family. Ruth unravels the history of the bird’s nesting conundrum and explores the daunting challenges it faces. Ninety percent of the marbled murrelet’s original habitat of old-growth canopy has fallen to logging. The bird spends most of its life at sea, where it faces oil pollution and fishing nets. Despite apparently high numbers — a million birds, 90 percent of them in Alaska — biologists have real concerns about the species’ continued existence. In Washington, Oregon and California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the marbled murrelet as threatened.

After numerous trips with researchers to study the marbled murrelet, Ruth wonders, "Is it hubris to think that we can recover a species that began evolving some twelve million years ago during the Miocene? … Perhaps no one really expects to recover this bird, but they cannot bring themselves to stop trying."

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