Razorbill

Alca torda

The Razorbill is a sleek seabird with an intimidating name and appearance. These efficient fish hunters can dive to depths over a hundred meters and catch several fish on a single breath.

Razorbill

Razorbills

Razorbill resting on top of the rocks

Razorbill resting on top of the rocks

Razorbill in natural habitat stretching its wings

Razorbill in natural habitat stretching its wings

Razorbill in-flight over the sea

Razorbill in-flight over the sea

Razorbill portrait

Razorbill portrait

Appearance & Identification

What do Razorbills look like?

The Razorbill is a medium-sized Auk with black upperparts and wings, white underparts, and a characteristic large and flattened bill. Their bill has a yellow interior and a vertical white bar toward the tip. In summer plumage, they have a white line between the top of the bill and the eye.

Razorbills have a completely black head, throat, and back in the breeding season. White-tipped secondary feathers create a white line across the wing at rest. Winter plumage is similar, although their face becomes white, leaving a black crown. These birds stand very upright on land, on large black webbed feet.

Females and males look alike, although males are slightly larger. Juveniles are less than a third of their adult size when they leave the nest. They appear similar to an adult in winter plumage but have dark streaks around the breast and throat.

Razorbills are easily identified at close range but can be confused with the Common Guillemot (Common Murre) or even Manx Shearwater when seen at a distance.

Razorbill standing on the the rocks near to the sea

Razorbill standing on the the rocks near to the sea

How big are Razorbills?

Razorbills are medium-sized seabirds, similar in size to the Kittiwake, which often nests nearby.

Length

Razorbills have a total length of 37 to 39 centimetres or 14½ to 15⅓ inches.

Weight

They weigh 505 to 890 grams or 18 to 31 ounces.

Wingspan

They have a 63 to 68- centimetre (25 - 27in) wingspan but are swift and agile in flight despite their short wings.

Razorbill in-flight over coastal habitat

Razorbill in-flight over coastal habitat

Calls & Sounds

What sound does a Razorbill make?

Razorbills produce a deep, machine-like croak and various grunts and growls when nesting.

Razorbill calling from the top of the rocks

Razorbill calling from the top of the rocks

Diet

What do Razorbills eat?

Razorbills are primarily piscivorous, hunting schooling fish like sand eels and herring. They also take crustaceans and marine worms that they catch by diving. They are accomplished hunters and can catch multiple fish on a single dive, although they also steal from other seabirds like Puffins.

What do Razorbill chicks eat?

Razorbill chicks eat whole fish like sprats, sand eels, and herring, delivered by their parents, often several at a time. The young birds leave the nest long before they are ready for independence, and their father will continue to feed them at sea for about two months.

Razorbill in the sea with a its beak full of fish

Razorbill in the sea with a its beak full of fish

Habitat & Distribution

What is the habitat of a Razorbill?

Razorbills are marine birds that usually feed in waters 20 - 55 meters (65 - 180 ft) deep. They inhabit rocky coastal areas near nesting colonies in the breeding season, foraging up to about 50 kilometres (31 mi) away. Winters are spent offshore of breeding areas or further south in waters without ice. They may forage far from the shore but remain within the shallow waters of the continental shelf.

What is the range of a Razorbill?

Razorbills inhabit the North Atlantic waters from the Arctic to as far south as North Africa. They breed around the British Isles, Scandinavia, and east to Russia’s White Sea. To the west, they occur around Iceland, southern and western Greenland, and the northeast coast of the United States and Canada.

Where do Razorbills live?

Razorbills are marine birds that spend most of their lives in the water, although they nest near the shore. These birds have amazing diving abilities, ‘flying’ through the water to depths of up to 140m and staying down for over a minute.

How rare are Razorbills?

Razorbills are not rare, although you are unlikely to spot them unless you visit a nesting colony or spend time out at sea in the winter. The world population is estimated at 1.2 - 2.5 million individuals.

Where can you see Razorbills in the UK?

Razorbills are widespread around the United Kingdom’s coast in the winter but rather scarce inshore. They are best seen in the breeding season around nesting sites like Skomer Island in Wales, The Farne Islands off Northumberland, and Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire.

Where can you see Razorbills in the US?

The most reliable way to spot Razorbills in the USA is to take a birdwatching tour by boat in the Gulf of Maine, where about 300 pairs nest. However, these birds wander as far south as Massachusetts in the non-breeding season.

Where can you see Razorbills in Canada?

Razorbills are widespread breeding birds on the east coast of Canada. The estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence in Quebec offer some of the most accessible sites for spotting these seabirds.

Razorbills in their natural cliff-top habitat

Razorbills in their natural cliff-top habitat

Lifespan & Predation

How long do Razorbills live?

Razorbills can live for at least 41 years in the wild, although the average bird has a life expectancy of about 13 years.

What are the predators of Razorbills?

Gulls, ravens, and foxes eat Razorbill eggs and chicks. Adults are vulnerable to Arctic Fox, Polar Bears, Peregrine Falcons, Bald Eagles, Great Black-backed Gulls and Grey Seals. Historically, humans have been major predators and harvested them for their feathers, eggs and meat. They are still hunted in Iceland.

Are Razorbills protected?

Razorbills are protected in the United Kingdom by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the United States, and in Canada by the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

Are Razorbills endangered?

Razorbills are not endangered. They are a ‘Least Concern’ species on the IUCN Red List and have a stable or increasing population trend.

Pair of Razorbills on the edge of the cliffs by the sea

Pair of Razorbills on the edge of the cliffs by the sea

Nesting & Breeding

Where do Razorbills nest?

Razorbills nest on coastal cliffs and rocky islands in the North Atlantic region. More than half of the world population breeds in Iceland, but about 165,000 pairs nest at several sites along the coastlines of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Razorbills may not be expert nest builders, but females will prepare a rudimentary nest for their eggs. They excavate a shallow depression in soft ground or construct a simple nest of stones, seashells, plant material and feathers on bare rock.

When do Razorbills nest?

Razorbills first breed when they are four or five years old. They nest between mid-May and mid-June, beginning earliest in the south of their range. Their eggs hatch after 35 days, and chicks leap into the ocean below after 16 to 22 days.

What do Razorbill eggs look like?

Razorbills lay just one very large (75 x 48mm) egg each year. The egg has a whitish, yellowish, or greenish background colour and is finely to heavily speckled and blotched in brown or black.

Do Razorbills mate for life?

Razorbills generally mate for life, and pairs return to nest at the same sea cliffs and rocky islands each year.

Razorbill at nesting site with its chick

Razorbill at nesting site with its chick

Behaviour

Are Razorbills aggressive?

Razorbills show aggressive behaviours on land and in the water when guarding their mate and defending their nest site. Males also fight each other for the chance of mating with another female. Conflict can escalate from posturing to pecking and even wrestling and wing-striking, and some fights end fatally.

Where do Razorbills sleep at night?

Razorbills sleep out at sea when they’re not sitting on eggs.

Razorbill resting out at sea

Razorbill resting out at sea

Migration

Do Razorbills migrate?

Razorbills are short to medium-distance migrants. They may migrate considerable distances or simply disperse offshore from their nesting grounds.

Why do Razorbills migrate?

Razorbills migrate between their summer breeding colonies and ice-free winter fishing grounds. They must return to specific nesting sites to raise their chicks in relative safety, but they move offshore to find the best feeding grounds for the rest of the year.

Are Razorbills native to the UK?

Razorbills are native to the United Kingdom.

Are Razorbills native to the US?

Razorbills are native to the USA, reaching their southerly distribution limits off the northeast coast.

Are Razorbills native to Canada?

Razorbills are native breeding birds along much of Canada’s east coast and in the Hudson Strait and Bay. They also gather from further north to overwinter off the southeast coast.

Razorbill in-flight

Razorbill in-flight

FAQs

Is the Razorbill a penguin?

Despite their upright posture and black and white plumage, Penguins and Razorbills are only distantly related. Razorbills are flying birds of the Alcidae family of the Northern Hemisphere, while Penguins are flightless Southern Hemisphere birds from the Spheniscidae family.

Check out this article to learn more about where Penguins live.

Is Razorbill a marine bird?

Razorbills are true seabirds that only come to land to nest. Some colonies nest around large estuaries and brackish water systems, but they rarely visit freshwater habitats.

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Quick Facts

Classification

Scientific name:

Alca torda

Other names:

Razor-billed Auk, Lesser Auk

Family:

Auks

Conservation status:

Amber

Measurements

Length:

37cm to 39cm

Wingspan:

63cm to 68cm

Weight:

505g to 890g

Other birds in the Auks family

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