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.
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.
Razorbill standing on the the rocks near to the sea
Razorbills are medium-sized seabirds, similar in size to the Kittiwake, which often nests nearby.
Razorbills have a total length of 37 to 39 centimetres or 14½ to 15⅓ inches.
They weigh 505 to 890 grams or 18 to 31 ounces.
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
Razorbills produce a deep, machine-like croak and various grunts and growls when nesting.
Razorbill calling from the top of the rocks
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 can live for at least 41 years in the wild, although the average bird has a life expectancy of about 13 years.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Razorbills sleep out at sea when they’re not sitting on eggs.
Razorbill resting out at sea
Razorbills are short to medium-distance migrants. They may migrate considerable distances or simply disperse offshore from their nesting grounds.
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.
Razorbills are native to the United Kingdom.
Razorbills are native to the USA, reaching their southerly distribution limits off the northeast coast.
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.
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.
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.
Razor-billed Auk, Lesser Auk
37cm to 39cm
63cm to 68cm
505g to 890g
The Puffin, also known as the Atlantic Puffin is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on the Red List of Threatened Species.
Little auks are starling-sized seabirds that breed in the Arctic and spend winters in the waters of the North Atlantic. They are known as ‘dovekies’ in North America, ‘king auks’ in Norway and ‘bull birds’ in Newfoundland.
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