What is a Razorbill?

J.L. Drede

The razorbill, or Alca tora, is a large bird found along the Atlantic coast across North America and parts of western Europe. Its plumage resembles that of a penguin, the belly is white while the wings and back are both black. Also like the penguin, it is a proficient sea hunter, swimming underwater to feed on fish. However, like all other Atlantic auks, the razorbill can fly as well as swim.

Razorbills may nest on the faces of rock cliffs that overlook the ocean.
Razorbills may nest on the faces of rock cliffs that overlook the ocean.

Since the razorbill prefers arctic and subarctic water conditions, it is usually found further north. Most razorbills are nested in and around Iceland, but lesser populations also exist in Maine and as far south as Massachusetts. It has been seen as far sound as Virginia, but usually in smaller numbers and only during the winter months.

Wherever it is found it usually makes its home on bare, jagged rock islands. Sometimes it will also nest on the faces of rock cliffs that overlook the ocean. In both locations the nests are usually in ledges, crevices and other hidden sports that make it difficult for predators to attack the young. Razorbills nest in colonies, and alternate between defending the nests and going to the ocean to feed. Primary prey of the bird is fish, mostly cod, herring and capelin.

The bird can live up to 30 years or longer in the wild and will grow to about 17 inches (43 cm) in length. Its weight usually peaks around 1.5 pounds (720 grams), and the wingspan can reach lengths of approximately 8 inches (210 mm). While it can fly, the wings of the razorbill are specially adapted for underwater swimming. It will swim fairly deep to catch prey, sometimes as deep at 130 feet (40 m). It then rises rapidly back to the surface. The entire process looks like a "v" as it both dives and rises back up at a slight angle.

For years the bird's most dangerous threat was man. Hunting of the bird and its eggs was so great during the late 19th century that it vanished from some areas of America, including the Gulf of Maine. Today it is a protected species, so hunting of both the birds and its eggs is illegal in America. Efforts are ongoing to restore the population. Progress has been made, and now there are substantial populations of the razorbill visible not only in the Gulf of Maine, but other areas where it was nearly extinct.

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