Razorbill – the little Penguin of the North Atlantic

The French call it Petit pengouin. In fact the Razorbill (Alca torda) looks like the smaller copy of a penguin. Other names attributed to the Razorbill are Razor-billed Auk or Lesser Auk. The Razorbill belongs to the Atlantic Auks which are also named “penguins of the northern hemisphere”.

White breast, belly and legs, dark black back, wings, tail and head, and dark eyes on top of it, that is how this bird looks like.  The wings are short and narrow and it seems as if the bird would never make it into flight and up in the air. Trust me, they fly. White on the bill give the bird a distinctive appearane.

Geographical Variations

There are two subspecies existing and distributed over the entire area in the northern hemisphere:

  • Alca torda torda Linnaeus 1758 – distributed in the arctic, Baltic Sea, White Seas, Norway, Bear Island, Iceland, Greenland, eastern North America
  • Alca torda islandica C.L. Brehm 1831 – distributed in Ireland, Great Britain, northwest France – this species has smaller wings and is generally lighter than torda.
razorbill alca torda seabird auk
Razorbill (Alca torda)

Characteristics of the Razorbill


Order: Charadriiformes
Family: Alcidae
Genus: Alca
Species: Razorbill

Scientific Name: Alca torda

Names and Synonyms of the Razorbill

German: Tordalk
Czech: Alka malá
Slovak: Alka vrúbkozobá
Hungarian: Alka
Croat: Oštrokljuna njorka
French: Petit Pingouin
Spanish: Alca Común
Portuguese: Torda-mergulheira
Dutch: Alk
Italian: Gazza marina
Iceland: Álka
Faroer: Álka, Nakkalanga
Greenland: Apparluk
North Sami: Hálkka
Finish: Ruokki
Danish: Alk
Swedish: Tordmule
Polish: Alka
Russian: Гагарка

razorbill with fish
Razorbill with fish

Distribution – Movements – Habitat – Behaviour

Distribution: The penguins of the northern hemisphere; North Atlantic and shorelines ov Canada, New England, from West Greenland to northwest France, North Sea and Baltics; White Sea in the northeast; Bear Island.

Movements: Migratory, spent most of the time out on the Atlantic.

Wintering: shores of Great Britain and Ireland, south Sweden, south Norway, Baltic Sea, Denmark, Atlantic coast of France, Spain and Portugal and further south to Morocco; torda mainly winters in the breeding areas.

Habitat: Spents most of the year out on the ocean, on shores, offshore in winter, colonial on cliffs and rocky islands.

Behaviour: Activity during daytime and at twilight. Flies close to water surface. Dives ony a few metres deep. Mostly gregarious.

Field Characteristics of the Razorbill

Big head, short neck, high and slender bill with perpendicular white line close to centre of bill. Relatively large pointed tail. Black plumage, back and wings and dark eyes, white chest, belly and undertail coverts, white feather tips at secondaries. White line from upper bill to eye.

Bill: black.
Tarsus: Black.

Iris: dark-brown.

razorbill with fish
Razorbill with fish

Measurements and Voice

Size: 37-39 cm
Weight: 524-890 g
372-645 g (islandica)
Wingspan: 63-68 cm
Wing: 20.1-21.6 cm
18.7-20.0 cm (islandica)

Voice: Deep aarh.


Clutch: 1 egg
Eggs: long-oval, base colour white to brown or greenish, with variety in stains.

Egg Measurements:
Length: 64.4-84.2 mm
Width: 41.0-52.0 mm
Ø: 75.3×48.0 mm (n=167)
Egg weight: 80.0-107.0 g (n=92)
shell weight: 6.5-12.7 g; Ø = 8.7 g (n=250)

egg of razorbill by klaus rassinger and gerhard cammere museum wiesbaden
Egg of the Razorbill – source: by Klaus Rassinger and Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35759116

Recurrent Clutch: mainly another egg is layed within the first 18 days after loss; even two clutches are possible.

Incubation: 28-43 days, Ø 36 days; both parents share the task of incubating.

Hatching: It takes 48-90 hours (Ø 72±16 hours) from first crack in the shell to the chicken fully free of the shell.

Fledging: Depends on geographical area: 14-22 days (Ø 17-18 days) in boreal zones, 19-22 days in subarctic zones. Both parents feed the juvenile. Juveniles jump off cliff ledges after 14-22 days, parents lead juveniles to the ocean where they swim for quite a while before finally fledging.

Dependency: After jumping off the cliffs juveniles are dependent on their parents for several weeks.

razorbill with fish
Razorbill still working on the caught fish


Food: pelagic fish, sprats, sandeels, gobiidae; herring in winter; also sticklebacks and crustaceans.

Mortality: Adults are subjected to a mortality rate of 8-10% per annum; the mortality rate for immatures is c. 62%.

Longevity: Oldest known ringed bird of a Razorbill reached an age of 30 years and 1 month.

Threats: Currently large losses of individuals through oil pollution, drowning in fishing nets and high levels of pollution. Hunting is no longer the main threat, if any then locally.

razorbill on nest in cliff face
Razorbill on nest in cliff face


Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Volume 1+2, Sonderausgabe 2012, Aula Verlag, Wiebelsheim

Bauer, Hans-Günther, Bezzel, Einhard et. al. (HG), Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Volume 3, Literatur und Anhang, Aula Verlag Wiebelsheim, 2. vollständig überarbeitete Auflage 1993

Bezzel, Einhard, Kompendium der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Non-Passeriformes, Volume 1, AULA-Verlag Wiesbaden, 1985

Bruun/Singer/König/Der Kosmos Vogelführer, Franck’sche Verlagshandlung Stuttgart, 5. Auflage 1982

Glutz von Blotzheim, Urs et. al (HG), Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas, Vol 8/II, Charadriiformes (Part 3), Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft Wiesbaden, 1982

Svenson, Lars et. al, Collins Bird Guide, Harper Collins London, 2009, revised and reprinded 2021

Image Credits

Egg of Common Guillemot – Source: by Klaus Rassinger und Gerhard Cammerer, Museum Wiesbaden – own works, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36817451

Featured Image and all other images of the razorbill: by ©Raymond Loyal

razorbill alca torda

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