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Razorbill { Birds of Europe}

Updated on October 5, 2015

Head of the Razorbill

Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Boing-boing.
Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Boing-boing. | Source


The Razorbill belongs to the order of birds known as the Charadiiformes and the Family Alcidae within that order. They have been placed in the genus Alca from the old Norse word for the bird Alka. The specific name they have been allocated ,torda derives from the name for the bird tordmule.

In the UK they have been placed on the Amber list of conservation concern {declines of between 25-50% over the last forty years or so} because of localized breeding populations. There are an estimated 11,00 pairs in summer. In Ireland they are also placed on the Amber list because there,they breed at less than ten sites. In the UK they are classed as migrant/resident breeder and passage winter visitor. { source BTO }

In Europe it is regarded as being secure {no current concerns} The total European population is estimated at between 430,000-760,000 pairs. The population varies from country to country here are a few selected examples. In Denmark the population is estimated at between 650-750 Breeding Pairs {BP}. Greenland 1,500-5,500 {BP}. Finland 6,000-8,500 BP. Germany 11 BP. Iceland 247,000-548,000 BP. Norway 20,000-40,000 BP. Russia 2,500-10,000 BP. Sweden 9,000-11,000 BP. { Source Birdlife}

The Razorbill is distributed through north and west Europe,north west Russia and north east North America. Winters at sea near breeding grounds. These are birds of coastal cliffs or otherwise pelagic. The Gaelic name for the bird is Crosan the Welsh name is Llurs and the Irish name is Coltraiche.

Arctic fox. Alopex lagopus will take Adults young and eggs.


What are Razorbills ?

The Razorbill is a colonial sea bird that only comes to land in order to breed. They pair up for life and the females produce a single egg per breeding season. In the USA they became protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act 1918.

They are closest living relatives of the now extinct Great Auk Pinguinis impennis. The Family Alcidae also includes the Common Murre, Uria aalge, the Thick-bellied Murre, Uria lomvia and the Little Auk known in North America as the Dovekie ,Alle alle.

There are two sub-species recognized by the American Ornithologist Union they are Alca torda torda, which occurs in the Baltic and White seas and eastern North America,and Alca torda islandica which occurs throughout the UK and north.west. France.

Razorbills dive deep in the sea using their wings and stream-lined bodies to propel themselves towards their prey,with the majority of the feeding done at a depth of twenty five meters {eighty two feet}, but they have the capability of diving much deeper. Studies have revealed that mature Razorbills may spend as much as 44% of their time foraging at sea. They have several enemies which include the Polar bear,Great Black Backed Gulls, certain Falcons,Ravens,Crows and other Corvids and the Arctic Fox all of which will take adults,chicks and eggs.

Here we review the Razorbill and as always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Razorbill and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Razorbill

At a Glance-- The Razorbill is a medium sized sea bird black above white below. it has a thick beak which is deep and blunt unlike that of the similar looking Guillemot.

In more detail---The male is about one foot five inches or over. The bill ,black,with three grooves following the profile of the front of the upper mandible,and one white curved streak arising from it and meeting the like one on the opposite side,and two grooves and a white line on the lower one. From the top of the base of the upper bill a clear streak of white slants backwards and upwards to the eye. The bill is much hooked at the tip. The inside of the mouth is yellow.The iris is dark brown.

The head on the sides,paler,and on the crown ,neck and nape ,darker brownish black,becomes more brown in tint as the summer advances. The chin and throat,the same but paler. The Breast white, the back deep brownish black. The wings expand to the width of about two to three feet.

The greater and lesser coverts black, the outer webs with a shade of grey. The secondary feathers are black tipped with white,which forms a narrow streak along the wing.The greater and lesser under wing coverts are white. The tail is wedge shaped,the two middle feathers being considerably larger than the others,and narrowed towards the tip. The upper tail coverts,black,under tail coverts white. The legs and toes,dusky black. The webs dusky black. Both sexes are alike.

Courtesy of Jose Francisco Calvo, Standard You Tube License. Taken in Iceland.

Illustration of the Razorbill

British Birds with their Nest and Eggs  Butler 1896-98.
British Birds with their Nest and Eggs Butler 1896-98. | Source

Razorbill returning

originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Markos96
originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Markos96 | Source

General and Historical information

This species breeds around the coasts of the UK with the largest colonies in northern Scotland. There are non-breeding colonies between the Humber and the Isle of Wight. They winter in the north Atlantic.

According to the 'Zoologist' 1897,page 130, On the American side it breeds in great numbers in the Gulf of St.Lawrence in New Foundland,Nova Scotia and Labrador,and in Greenland, Colonel Fieirdon, who accompanied the Polar expedition on board HMS Alert , found the Razorbill breeding in considerable numbers at Ritenbenk-about Latitude 70 degrees North.

Meyer in the 1800's makes the following observations regarding the migratory movements of this species. " During the migration an interesting circumstance may be observed,namely that when several divisions or groups of a flock descend upon the sea to rest themselves, the parties that are behind alight some distance in advance of those that first settled,so, that when the first arrived parties have recruited their strength,and taken to the wing again, the later arrivals having alighted so much in advance, have had time to rest themselves also, and are prepared in their turn to follow in the train of their former leaders as soon as they have passed over "

They fly strongly,rather fast,and well, but near the surface of the water,rising up only to gain a rock or cliff , the wings being quickly beaten. The birds that comprise the flock,keeping some distance from each other. On land their motions are awkward and slow,and if pursued,they take to the wing,and they swim and dive with remarkable agility.

Historical records suggest that in winter the Razorbill was said to go down the Atlantic some distance beyond the mouth of the Mediterranean ,and a good many entered the sea. With regard to the Italian coast,Professor Giglioli stated that he would not have been surprised "To hear the Razorbill,occasionally breeds in the Mediterranean. Two examples in summer dress were shot near Genoa on the 10th of May 1880,and according to the 'Ibis' 1881,there were two specimens in the Museum at Syracuse '"

" On the American side it goes south to winter as far as the Middle States,and records reveal that two specimens,probably storm driven, have occurred on Lake Ontario"

The Razorbill when beneath the surface uses its wings and 'flies' through the water aided by its feet. Butler 1896, relates the following notes. " In the winter,previous to stormy weather setting in, the birds have been observed to be very restless,and to change their quarters,and during long continued stormy weather they suffer greatly from hunger. The great destruction which takes place among these birds{ to a greater extent than in the case of the Guillemot} in heavy gales,is largely due, in most cases,to the birds being weakened by want of food, those washed ashore being usually very thin,and the Razorbill,although occasionally gets enormously fat,like other fish eating birds,is probably capable of only a very short fast. heavy gales from seaward at the close of summer, before the birds have completed their moult,are also destructive."

" Razorbills has a great many local names. The following are examples from various ancient and more modern day writers. Murre,Marrot,Falk,Oke, Willock,Parrot-billed Willock and Tinkershire Skort. In winter dress it was said to be the Black billed Auk of the older writers

Razorbill in flight

Gannet Island Labrador Canada
Gannet Island Labrador Canada | Source

Black Guillemot illustration

Birds of America-John James Audubon. Guillemots suffered high mortality rates along with the Puffin and Razor bill during the 1800,s  in the waters of the northern  UK and Ireland.
Birds of America-John James Audubon. Guillemots suffered high mortality rates along with the Puffin and Razor bill during the 1800,s in the waters of the northern UK and Ireland. | Source

Historical conservation concerns

It seems that during the 1800's there were concerns over the birds population numbers in the UK. In the north of England and Scotland the Razorbill seems to have diminished in numbers and it would also seem that the species was more liable than most of its allies to the mortality that had taken place,regarding seafood at that period.

Mr.Robert Grey, wrote in the 'Birds of Western Scotland'-" The Razorbill is much less common species than the Puffin** or the Guillemot at all the breeding stations in the west of Scotland. I may refer to a very extraordinary mortality which occurred among the sea fowl on the Firth of Clyde in September 18959,and which at that time attracted considerable attention from local naturalists."

" The principle victims of the epidemic,if such it may be called, were the Puffin** Guillemot,and Common Gull. The Razorbill perished in extraordinary numbers,being found in the proportion of ten to one of the other species. From information communicated to the Natural History Society of Glasgow by one or two of the members, it would appear that the mortality had set in about the time of the birds leaving Ailsa Graig and the breeding places off the coast of Ireland, and that during the few intervening weeks they had probably, from a diminution or entire absence of their usual; food, fell into a low condition favourable to the development of the disease to which they ultimately succumbed"

" They were all found much further up the Firth than was usual,as if in search of food,many birds being obtained even at Refrew and other places at distances from the sea. In these situations they darted eagerly at any food which came their way,rushing at baited hooks on a hand line and otherwise exhibiting a tameness more like the result of starvation than actual disease.. They were all in a wasted condition, being reduced almost to skin and feathers,and were found dead or dying in thousands over the wide extent of sea, from the mouth of the River Clyde to the Irish coasts. The master of one of the main steam packets having reported that he sailed his ship through miles of floating carcasses."

The author concludes stating that " At a meeting of the same Society,held on the 29th of November following, my friend Mr.David Robertson,read a report on this mortality, in which he gave an apparently explanation of the mystery. In this communication it was shown that nothing unusual was observed among the birds until a few days after the storms in the early part of the month of September,and that they were then in a state bordering on starvation,may be proved by the fact of so many hundreds,even thousands,resorting to estuaries,heedless of the danger and contrary to their usual shyness. The testimony of the fishermen in various places showed that the common Dogfish was unusually abundant,while the small herring fry and other fishes which constitute the food of sea birds had entirely disappeared"

It goes to show now as then, that the Marine eco-system is a fragile thing and it must be in all our interests to conserve and preserve it.

** This species has already been reviewed in this series.


Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Jasve05a
Originally posted to Flickr,uploaded to Commons by Jasve05a | Source

Nest and Eggs

Butler conveys to us that the old birds are very tame during th breeding season,and allow a boat to become within a few feet of them before diving out of the way. They have a much neater appearance in the water than the Guillemots,which have a way of poking their heads forward. Razor bills hold their heads further back,and their longer tails stuck up conspicuously. They are often seen dipping their heads under the water probably picking up food from near the surface.

When Razorbills and Guillemots occupy the same breeding station,as they often do in great numbers,they are not usually found breeding in close proximity. This separation is probably accounted for by the preference shown by the respective birds for slightly different breeding sites, the Razorbill preferring to deposit their egg within a crevice,while the Guillemot affects an open ledge. however, that said there are few indications that the two species object to sharing the same general locality.

Any slight hollow or cranny in a rock off the cliff over hanging the sea, or even the bare unsheltered surface of the rock itself, a preference given to the most precipitous places is chosen by the Razorbill as a deposit for its single egg,which it usually lays in April. Even here, however, it is exposed to accidents of different kinds,and is not infrequently thrown down by high winds, or by some other bird,great numbers occupying a relatively small place. Dislodged earth or rocks from higher up also take their toll on eggs and even the adult birds may be killed or injured from such an occurrence.

They lay their single egg which is subject to an almost endless variety. Its prevailing colour is white, blotted and spotted with blackish brown and reddish brown.The egg is incubated by both parents for a period of 32-39 days and the resulting young fledge 14-24 days after hatching.

Egg of the Razorbill

Beaty Biodiversity Museum.
Beaty Biodiversity Museum. | Source

Courtesy of Standard YouTube license. Taken by Stephen Kress filmed at Matinicus Rock Maine USA

Banded Razorbill chick

Gannet Island Labrador Canada
Gannet Island Labrador Canada | Source

Chicks and young birds.

The old birds show much attachment to their young. The latter are able to provide for themselves by July, but descent to the sea is not always accomplished with safety. It sometimes happens that in throwing themselves down from the edge of a cliff, to which they are led by their parents,and instructed,as it were, about what to do,they fail in clearing every obstacle below and the force of the fall in such cases are often fatal.

Those that do survive are led to the sea by their parents. At first the young birds have the bill plain,and it lacks the white line between the bill and the eye. this is acquired ,although indistinctly, at the end of the year. The head and crown is a dull black,streaked with a few plumes of white. The sides of the head and chin and throat are white.The neck in front is streaked with a few black filaments,and behind with a few white ones. The back is a dull black colour.

Razorbill colony

Taken at Newfoundland Canada
Taken at Newfoundland Canada | Source


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, You must have been sad when this little fellow passed on. the work you and many other kind and caring people do for birds and other wildlife is truly amazing. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I knew a beautiful little razorbill that came to Tri-State when I was volunteering there in Newark, DE. Being pelagic birds, they are unacquainted with people. This little one was very sweet and friendly. Every time her heard a human voice, he would turn in that direction. He favored bath time, flapping his little wings in his plastic dishpan filled with water, and making happy sounds. Sadly, he passed from aspirgillosis, even with the preventive medication. Molds that humans can survive with, are deadly to so many birds.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika, glad you enjoyed another species. First thank you for being the first to read, secondly thank you as always for your encouraging comments and for all your votes you are very kind, Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Birds are such fascinating creatures and always so free to explore their environment. There again you surprised me with another valuable hub.! Voted up, interesting and useful.


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