Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE FOOLISH GUILLEMOT.--MURRE.
URIA TROILE, Linn.
PLATE CCCCLXXIII.--MALE AND FEMALE.
This bird is seldom found farther south than the entrance of the Bay of New
York, where, however, it appears only during severe winters, for being one of
the most hardy inhabitants of the northern regions, its constitution is such as
to enable it to bear without injury the rigours of their wintry climates. About
the bays near Boston the Guillemots are seen every year in greater or less
numbers, and from thence to the eastward they become gradually more abundant. A
very old gunner whom I employed while at Boston, during the winter of 1832-3,
assured me, that when he was a young man, this species bred on many of the rocky
islands about the mouth of the bay there; but that for about twenty years back
none remained after the first days of April, when they departed for the north in
company with the Thick-billed Guillemot, the Common Auk, the Puffin, and the
Eider and King Ducks, all of which visit these bays in hard weather. In the Bay
of Fundy, the Foolish Guillemot is very numerous, and is known by the name of
Murre, which it retains among all the eggers and fishermen of Newfoundland and
Labrador, where it breeds in myriads. To those countries, then, I must lead
you, good reader, as there we can with ease study the habits of these birds.
Stay on the deck of the Ripley by my side this clear and cold morning. See
how swiftly scuds our gallant bark, as she cuts her way through the foaming
billows, now inclining to the right and again to the left. Far in the east,
dark banks of low clouds indicate foul weather to the wary mariner, who watches
the approach of a northern storm with anxiety. Suddenly the wind changes; but
for this he has prepared; the topsails are snugged to their yards, and the rest
are securely reefed. A thick fog obscures all around us. The waters suddenly
checked in their former course, furiously war against those which now strike
them in front. The uproar increases, the bark is tossed on every side; now a
sweeping wave rushes against the bows, the vessel quivers, while down along her
deck violently pour the waters, rolling from side to side, seeking for a place
by which they may escape. At this moment all about you are in dismay save the
Guillemots. The sea is covered with these intrepid navigators of the deep.
Over each tumultuous billow they swim unconcerned on the very spray at the bow
of the vessel, and plunging as if with pleasure, up they come next moment at the
rudder. Others fly around in large circles, while thousands contend with the
breeze, moving directly against it in long lines, towards regions unknown to
all, save themselves and some other species of sea birds.
The Guillemots pair during their migrations;--many of them at least do so.
While on my way toward Labrador, they were constantly within sight, gambolling
over the surface of the water, the males courting the females, and the latter
receiving the caresses of their mates. These would at times rise erect in the
sea, swell their throats, and emit a hoarse puffing guttural note, to which the
females at once responded, with numerous noddings to their beaux. Then the pair
would rise, take a round in the air, re-alight, and seal the conjugal compact;
after which they flew or swam together for the season, and so closely, that
among multitudes on the wing or on the waves, one might easily distinguish a
Not far from Great Macatina Harbour lie the Murre Rocks, consisting of
several low islands, destitute of vegetation, and not rising high from the
waters. There thousands of Guillemots annually assemble in the beginning of
May, to deposit each its single egg, and raise its young. As you approach these
islands, the air becomes darkened with the multitudes of birds that fly about;
every square foot of the ground seems to be occupied by a Guillemot planted
erect as it were on the granite rock, but carefully warming its cherished egg.
All look toward the south, and if you are fronting them, the snowy white of
their bodies produces a very remarkable effect, for the birds at some distance
look as if they were destitute of head, so much does that part assimilate with
the dark hue of the rocks on which they stand. On the other hand, if you
approach them in the rear, the isle appears as if covered with a black pall.
Now land, and witness the consternation of the settlers! Each affrighted
leaves its egg, hastily runs a few steps, and launches into the air in silence.
Thrice around you they rapidly pass, to discover the object of your unwelcome
visit. If you begin to gather their eggs, or, still worse, to break them, in
order that they may lay others which you can pick up fresh, the Guillemots all
alight at some distance, on the bosom of the deep, and anxiously await your
departure. Eggs, green and white, and almost of every colour, are lying thick
over the whole rock; the ordure of the birds mingled with feathers, with the
refuse of half-hatched eggs partially sucked by rapacious Gulls, and with putrid
or dried carcasses of Guillemots, produces an intolerable stench; and no sooner
are all your baskets filled with eggs, than you are glad to abandon the isle to
its proper owners.
On one occasion, whilst at anchor at Great Macatina, one of our boats was
sent for eggs. The sailors had eight miles to pull before reaching the Murre
Islands, and yet ere many hours had elapsed, the boat was again alongside,
loaded to a few inches of the gunwale, with 2500 eggs! Many of them, however,
being addle, were thrown overboard. The order given to the tars had been to
bring only a few dozens; but, as they said, they had forgotten!
The eggs are unaccountably large for the size of the bird, their average
length being three inches and three-eighths, and their greatest breadth two
inches. They are pyriform or elongated, with a slight compression towards the
smaller end, which again rather swells and is rounded at the extremity. They
afford excellent food, being highly nutritive and palatable, whether boiled,
roasted, poached, or in omelets. The shell is rough to the touch, although not
granulated. Some are of a lively verdigris colour, others of different tints,
but all curiously splashed, as it were, with streaks or blotches of dark umber
and brown. My opinion, however, is, that, when first dropped, they are always
pure white, for on opening a good number of these birds, I found several
containing an egg ready for being laid, and of a pure white colour. The shell
is so firm that it does not easily break, and I have seen a quantity of these
eggs very carelessly removed from a basket into a boat without being damaged.
They are collected in astonishing quantities by "the eggers," and sent to
distant markets, where they are sold at from one to three cents each.
Although the Guillemots are continually harassed, their eggs being carried
off as soon as they are deposited, and as long as the birds can produce them,
yet they return to the same islands year after year, and, notwithstanding all
the efforts of their enemies, multiply their numbers.
The Foolish Guillemot, as I have said, lays only a single egg, which is the
case with the Thick-billed Guillemot also. The Razor-billed Auk lays two, and
the Black Guillemot usually three. I have assured myself of these facts, not
merely by observing the birds sitting on their eggs, but also by noticing the
following circumstances. The Foolish Guillemot, which lays only one, plucks the
feathers from its abdomen, which is thus left quite bare over a roundish space
just large enough to cover its single egg. The Thick-billed Guillemot does the
same. The Auk, on the contrary, forms two bare spots, separated by a ridge of
feathers. The Black Guillemot, to cover her three eggs, and to warm them all at
once, plucks a space bare quite across her belly. These observations were made
on numerous birds of all the species mentioned. In all of them, the males
incubate as well as the females, although the latter are more assiduous. When
the Guillemots are disturbed, they fly off in silence. The Auks, on the
contrary, emit a hoarse croaking note, which they repeat several times, as they
fly away from danger. The Foolish Guillemot seldom if ever attempts to bite,
whereas the Razor-billed Auk bites most severely, and clings to a person's hand
until choked. The plumage of all the birds of this family is extremely compact,
closely downed at the root, and difficult to be plucked. The fishermen and
eggers often use their skins with the feathers on as "comforters" round their
wrists. The flesh is dark, tough, and not very palatable; yet many of these
birds are eaten by the fishermen and sailors.
The young, which burst the egg about the beginning of July, are covered
with down of a brownish-black colour. When eight or ten days old they are still
downy, but have acquired considerable activity. As they grow up, they become
excessively fat, and seem to be more at ease on the water than on the land.
About the middle of August they follow their parents to the open sea, the latter
being then seldom able to fly, having dropped their quills; and by the middle of
September scarcely any of these birds are to be found on or near the islands on
which they breed, although great numbers spend the winter in those latitudes.
There is no perceptible difference between the sexes as to colour, but the
males are larger than the females. The white line that encircles the eye and
extends toward the hind head is common to both sexes, but occurs only in old
birds. Thousands of these Guillemots however breed without having yet acquired
it, there merely being indications of it to be seen on parting the feathers on
the place, where there is a natural division.
The flight of the Foolish Guillemot is rapid and greatly protracted, being
performed by quick and unintermitted beatings. They move through the air either
singly or in bands, in the latter case seldom keeping any very regular order.
Sometimes they seem to skim along the surface for miles, while at other times
they fly at the height of thirty or forty yards. They are expert divers, using
their wings like fins, and under water looking like winged fishes. They
frequently plunge at the flash of the gun, and disappear for a considerable
time. Before rising, they are obliged to run as it were on the water,
fluttering for many yards before they get fairly on wing.
Those which I kept alive for weeks on board the Ripley, walked about and
ran with ease, with the whole length of their tarsus touching the deck. They
took leaps on chests and other objects to raise themselves, but could not fly
without being elevated two or three feet, although when they are on the rocks,
and can take a run of eight or ten yards, they easily rise on wing.
The islands on which the Guillemots breed on the coast of Labrador, are
flattish at top, and it is there, on the bare rock, that they deposit their
eggs. I saw none standing on the shelvings of high rocks, although many breed
in such places in some parts of Europe. Their food consists of small fish,
shrimps, and other marine animals; and they swallow some gravel also.
URIA TROILE, Bonap. Syn., p. 424.
URIA TROILE, Foolish Guillemot, Swains. and Rich. F. Bor. Amer., vol. ii.p. 477.
FOOLISH GUILLEMOT, or MURRE, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 526.
FOOLISH GUILLEMOT, Uria Troile, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 142.
Male, 17 1/2, 30.
More or less abundant during winter on the coast of Massachusetts and
Maine, rarely as far south as New York. Breeds in vast multitudes on the Rocky
Islands of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and Labrador. Occasionally
found in Hudson's Bay.
Adult Male, in summer.
Bill of moderate length, rather stout, tapering, compressed, acute. Upper
mandible with the dorsal line slightly curved, the ridge narrow, broader at the
base, the sides sloping, the edges short and inflected, the tip a little
decurved with a slight notch. Nasal groove broad, feathered; nostrils at its
lower edge, sub-basal, lateral, longitudinal, linear, pervious. Lower mandible
with the angle medial, narrow, the dorsal line sloping upwards, and straight,
the back very narrow, the sides nearly flat, the edges sharp and inflected.
Head oblong, depressed, narrowed before. Eyes rather small. Neck short
and thick. Body stout, rather depressed. Wings rather small. Feet short,
placed far behind; the greater part of the tibia concealed, its lower portion
bare; tarsus short, stout, compressed, anteriorly sharp, and covered with a
double row of scutella, the sides with angular scales; toes of moderate length,
the first wanting, the third nearly longest, the fourth longer than the second;
all covered above with numerous scutella, webbed, the lateral ones with small
margins; claws small, slightly arched, compressed, rather acute, the middle one
larger, with a dilated inner edge.
Plumage dense, very soft, blended; on the head very short. Wings rather
short, narrow, acute; primary quills curved, tapering, the first longest, the
second little shorter, the rest rapidly graduated; secondaries short, incurved,
broad, rounded. Tail very short, rounded, of twelve narrow feathers.
Bill black; inside of mouth gamboge-yellow. Iris dark brown. Feet black.
The general colour of the plumage is greyish-black on the upper parts; the sides
of the head and upper part of the neck black, tinged with brown. A white bar
across the wing, formed by the tips of the secondary quills, and a line of the
same encircling the eye, and extending behind it. The lower parts white.
Length to end of tail 17 1/2 inches, to end of claws 19 1/4, to end of
wings 17 1/2; extent of wings 30 inches; wing from flexure 7 1/2; tail 2; tarsus
1 3/12; middle toe 1 7/12, its claw 5/12. Weight 2 lbs.
The female is similar to the male, and, when mature, has the white line
around and behind the eye.