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Animals + Compassion

The Elusive Marbled Murrelet: A Threatened Species

The marbled murrelet is a secretive, elusive little seabird that makes it home in the chilly coastal waters of the Pacific Coast, from Alaska south to California. Though this robin-sized bird was commonly seen on the water and was documented by naturalists as early as the 18th century, the murrelet kept its nesting location a mystery for nearly 200 years. The discovery of the first nest in 1975—on a branch of old-growth Douglas fir, 148 feet above the forest floor— allowed scientists to begin piecing together the murrelet’s very bizarre life story.

That life story involves a mated pair of murrelets flying as far as 50 miles inland from the sea to a wide, platform-style branch where they make a stall-out landing on their tiny webbed feet. It involves a bird the size of a robin laying a single egg the size of a chicken’s egg. It involves a month of 24-hour incubation shifts for male and female followed by another month of shared feeding visits—as many as eight each day. And, most incredibly, it involves a chick that leaves its nest at dusk one night to fly (for the first time) some unknown distance toward the sea (which it has never seen) without guidance from its parents (who are usually absent). If and when the chick reaches the sea, it begins to swim and dive for fish (which it has never done) and live the life of a fully fledged seabird.

Because it spends its life at sea and in the old-growth forest, the marbled murrelet’s life story is intimately connected to the health of these two ecosystems. A thriving population of marbled murrelets indicates healthy oceans and pristine forests. Sadly, murrelets are not thriving. Throughout its range, murrelet populations are plummeting. After decades of logging our old-growth forests, polluting our marine waters, and depleting our once-abundant fisheries, we have pushed the murrelets toward extinction. Throughout its range, the murrelet appears on official government lists of endangered, threatened, or at-risk species. These listings help provide some protection for the murrelet and its dual habitats and also help fund critical scientific research on the species.

Science will help us understand the marbled murrelet, but art will help us save it. Artist Joseph Rossano’s exquisite Mirrored Murrelets encourages us to question our relationship to one particular bird and, at the same time, question our relationship to other birds and other living creatures. 

Why do marbled murrelets matter? Do we need old-growth forests? Do the murrelets and the trees need us? How do the mirrored murrelets affect and reflect us? Is the beauty of the earth fragile and fleeting like the glass murrelets? Can we afford to ignore the murrelets and other imperiled species we have never heard or heard of?

What is so extraordinary about Rossano’s Mirrored Murrelets installation is that it allows viewers to “see” the birds and create a connection to them. In the wild, murrelets are difficult to find and nearly impossible to observe—much less contemplate. Murrelets are active in the forest before dawn and appear as small silhouettes hurtling themselves across the sky at speeds pushing 100 mph. Even for experienced birders, a murrelet is more blur than bird. At sea, a murrelet is boat shy and quick to dive beneath the waves and out of sight. Quick cameras capture only a splash, tail feathers, and webbed feet. There is no time to be contemplative, only disappointed.

Joseph Rossano’s Mirrored Murrelets has the power to transport viewers on bright wings to a place where big questions can be asked and answered by individual voices.

Maria Mudd Ruth, author of Rare Bird: Pursuing the Mystery of the Marbled Murrelet



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