On the sea and shorelines of Skagit County, there is a seabird whose shape resembles a “pigeon on the water.” Recognizing the silhouette of this bird is helpful since its seasonal plumage changes drastically, from winter white to summer black. The Pigeon Guillemot (PIGU) is the same 13 inches with smaller head, full round body and short tail like a pigeon, but that’s where the similarities stop. The PIGU is an elegant bird on the water, especially “dressed” in summer black.
The Pigeon Guillemot has its widest year-round distribution starting here on the Salish Sea. It is a member of the Alcidae family which includes auks, murres and puffins. Unlike other alcids, it spends more time closer to shore. PIGU feed in shallower water, from 33 to 66 feet deep. The recorded underwater dive time is 75 seconds. They surface dive, using their wings to propel and swim underwater. Their diet includes fish, crustaceans, and marine invertebrates. PIGUs are mostly observed on the water, but they can be seen on cliff faces. They “climb” vertical rock faces by vigorously flapping their wings and using sharp claws on their webbed feet.
Early in the breeding season look for PIGUs to present interesting water displays. Groups of these birds will perform a conspicuous “water dance” where they dive, flap and paddle around each other. The purpose of this dance is unknown, but scientist speculate this is a ritual to form a colony bond. Courtship displays for mating pairs include “billing,” where they will open their bills showing the red interior. They also twitter their wings and call out a trilled song. Observing these birds in their strikingly, black breeding plumage, sporting white wing patches, red interior bills and red feet, is a true Northwest birding experience easily seen from Skagit shorelines.
Pigeon Guillemots nest in small colonies. Both the male and female will select the nest site. The nest is usually a shallow scrape in a cliff face crevice. However, they will also nest near boulders on local islands. Once a site has been successful, PIGU’s practice site tenacity. The same monogamous pair will return year after year to the same nest. Scientist confirm this behavior by observing banded birds. Therefore, preserving nesting sites and the habitat close-by protects PIGU populations. They are one of the few members of the auk family to lay two eggs. Nearly all others lay one egg. The male and female take turns incubating the eggs on shifts from 30 minutes to one hour. Incubation takes about 30 days. The hatchlings are born semi-precocial. They are covered with black downy feathers, can move around the nest, but are dependent on their parents to be fed at the nest for 35 days. Unlike most auks and puffins, PIGUs feed their chicks constantly throughout the day. Therefore, the chicks fledge faster than equivalent sized auks that are only fed at night. The young fledge at night. Once on the water, the fledglings quickly learn to dive and feed on their own. An immature PIGU looks slightly darker than winter adults, mostly white, with a mottled gray head and back. Local scientists continue to observe and gather data on the Pigeon Guillemot. The oldest PIGU on record was recorded here in Washington State. This banded bird was 15 years old.
Although a year-round resident of the PNW, summer is the best time to observe the active behaviors of Pigeon Guillemots. There are breeding colonies on Guemes Island and smaller islands nearby. These birds are easily seen from shore at the Samish Island Public Beach Access, Ship Harbor and Washington Park in Anacortes, and along the Guemes Channel.