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Quiet Neighbor

The Marbled Murrelet
Dutcher Film Productions

Brachyramphus marmoratus

By Heather Zimmerman

IT WOULDN'T BE JUST ANY OLD THING that would compel Woody Harrelson to scale the Golden Gate Bridge, now would it? Well, maybe. But among some of the well-intentioned reasons behind the movie star's rather unpopular climb is the plight of a small, unassuming seabird whose own semi-exotic sounding name probably embarrasses it--the marbled murrelet.

Preserving the nests of this reclusive bird has become a major concern in the recent, well-publicized controversy over logging in Humboldt County's Headwaters forest. The media exposure must be disconcerting to the bashful winger, which prefers the peace and quiet of old-growth, coastal coniferous forests between southeast Alaska and Santa Cruz. Of the estimated 6500 marbled murrelets left in California, about 800 of them have make their homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Far less of an exhibitionist than its fellow seabird compatriots who set up household in the sand, the murrelet rejects the beach for nesting, keeping its family values (and everything else) private by nesting and raising its chicks--only one chick to a clutch--150 feet up in the branches of old-growth trees.

Even this shy guy's breeding plumage is more subtle than many of its avian kin. The murrelet opts for understated earth tones of brownish, rust-tipped feathers with mottled brown and white underdressing. Now, maybe one could call the murrelet a loner, but there's no doubt it isn't tastefully turned out. Even in winter, the murrelet dons basic black with a hint of blue on the back feathers and a narrow white band at the back of the neck.

A secluded forest home and chic finery might make you think these retiring creatures are naturals for the limelight--like their squealing seagull cousins--but such are their penchant for privacy that the first actual sighting of a murrelet nest didn't occur until 1974, when a nest was discovered by a tree climber at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

While it's quite the homebody, that's not to say the murrelet isn't also a hard worker. It's no shrinking violet--it commutes, just like everybody else, leaving its nest during the day to feed on small fish and invertebrates in the ocean.

In fact, this rare bird almost sounds like the ideal next-door neighbor--noise complaints would certainly be a non-issue--but there are too many people moving onto the block already. To keep the neighborhood nice, it's become necessary for this demure forest denizen to reluctantly step into the media's spotlight. Despite its solitary nature, the marbled murrelet handles the dizzying heights of fame gracefully (no wonder, considering where it nests) even though it's not every day you get a celebrity clambering up a national landmark on your behalf.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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