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Young birds take big leap for more food

April 26, 2017 GMT

Have you ever heard the saying: Look before you leap? It means to think things over before you make a decision.

When it comes to guillemot chicks, though, the saying also means an actual leap from their nests, which are built on cliffs, down to the sea.

Guillemots, also known as murres, are birds that live in northern oceans, like around Greenland and along the coast of Alaska. The birds lay their eggs on high, steep cliffs. To keep the eggs from falling off, they are pointy on one end so when they do roll, they roll in a circle.

But what about after those chicks hatch? How do they get down?

Before the young birds can even fly, they are encouraged by their fathers to jump off the cliff, sometimes falling hundreds of yards down to the sea while hopefully avoiding any rocks below.

The chicks make the jump for a couple of reasons. The main one is that once they are in the water, they can eat a lot more. Also, the fathers probably encourage the chicks to jump because it saves the dads a lot of work.

Chicks roosting on the cliffs have to be fed by the fathers who must continually fly back and forth to the ocean to get food. One study showed the father birds may spend up to six hours searching for food for chicks by diving under the water where they catch fish, squid and other food.

There are several species of guillemots, seabirds that are members of the auk family. Some of the birds look like little penguins that can fly. They even have black and white feathers. Others look more like ducks.

The oldest known common murre was at least 27 years, 1 month old. Not bad for a bird that started out life by taking a big leap of faith.

— Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor