Along the Pacific Coast, a seabird is starving — and we don’t know why

A Common Murre in Iceland.

Unless you’re a sailor or you work on an oil rig, you’ve probably never seen a common murre. These black and white birds live nearly their entire lives at sea, but this summer starving murres washed up on the Pacific Coast from Southern California to Alaska.

Just about every day since the beginning of August, Eve Egan has gotten a call from a confused beachgoer saying: “I know this is going to sound crazy, but I see a penguin on the beach.” Egan calmlly explains that it’s almost certainly a common murre, a seabird that looks like a mix between a small penguin and a loon. 

A common murre
A common murre in a cardboard carrying case at Native Animal Rescue in Santa Cruz.Emmett FitzGerald
Egan and her family run a small wildlife rehab center called Native Animal Recue out of their home in Santa Cruz. Usually Native Animal Rescue gets about 40 murres a year, but in 2015 they’ve already had over 350. “When we started getting, you know 5, 6, 10 a day, and every day this happening, we thought wow this is really different. This is much more than we’ve ever seen before,” says Egan.

Her daughter, Lupin Egan, tube feeds the starving murres until they can eat fish on their own. If the birds survive the first few days, Native Animal Rescue sends them up the coast to International Bird Rescue, a larger facility in Fairfield, California. 

So far, International Bird Rescue has taken in about 500 murres this year, more than ever before. They keep the birds in large circular swimming pools. For having been so close to death, the murres seem to be in pretty good spirits — zipping around the surface and diving playfully beneath each other. But these murres have a ways to go before they can be released.

“Their feathers are in pretty bad shape,” says JD Bergeron, executive director of the center. “These birds look like sleek beautiful penguins when they’re in their best form. You might be able to see a few that are smooth looking, but most of them are looking pretty haggard.” 

International Bird Rescue has enlisted an army of volunteers to help cope with the influx of seabirds. One of the biggest challenges has been getting enough food to go around. “We ordered about a thousand pounds of fish for these guys and we went through it in about a week,” says rehab technician Jennifer Linander. “We’re going about 160 to 180 pounds a day of smelt, just to feed these murres. They can eat about their body weight in a day.”

That costs a lot of money for a small non-profit. International Bird Rescue got started back in 1971 after a massive oil spill near the Golden Gate Bridge. With oil spills, the responsible company pays the bills to take care of the effected birds. But there’s no responsible company here.

Murres swimming
Murres swimming in a pool at International Bird Rescue in Fairfield. Emmett FitzGerald
The murres washing up on shore have no oil on them, and they aren’t sick, just hungry. Scientists aren’t totally sure what’s going on, but they think part of the problem is a mysterious “blob” of warm water that has been circulating in the North Pacific since the summer of 2014.

“If the water is warmer or ocean conditions aren’t what they normally are, then often times prey species aren’t going to be where they normally are,” says Cori Gibble, the seabird health program coordinator at the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz.

Lots of other seabirds feed on small fish like smelt and anchovies, but murres seem to be the only species that’s suffering, and Gibble has a theory about why. “When Murres take care of their young, they go through this period where they’re molting and they can’t fly for like 1 to 2 months after their chicks are hatched,” she says. We’re in the middle of that molting period right now, and Gibble thinks it might be limiting the murres ability to adjust to the changing location of their prey.

“If they’re stuck in an area without a lot of food and they can’t fly somewhere else, they could have this starvation issue,” she explains.

Murres may be the only birds washing up on California beaches, but they clearly aren’t the only species suffering from strange water patterns in the Pacific. NOAA recently declared an unusual mortality event for Guadalupe Fur Seals, and earlier this year there was a die-off of California Sea Lions.

“One phrase people are using is global weirding,” says Laird Henkel director of the Marine Wildlife and Veterinary Care Research Center.  “The ‘blob’ of warm water offshore is something that’s never been seen before at this scale in the North Pacific, and I think we really don’t understand the implications of that yet, or what’s causing it exactly.”

Back at International Bird Rescue, JD Bergeron says that changes in the climate are giving them a lot more work to do.  They’ve already treated more birds this year than ever before. In the past, International Bird Rescue mostly responded to oil spills, but bizarre die-offs and starvation events are becoming more common. Bergeron worries about how climate change will affect his work in the future, but for now he’s focused on the challenge that’s immediately in front of him, getting all these birds back where they belong.

Bergeron was on the boat when they released 19 murres near the Golden Gate Bridge. “It was amazing,” he says, “they were immediately washing and preening and some of them diving, doing all the stuff they should be doing as wild birds, right away, amazing to watch.” Bergeron hoped that was the beginning of the end, but then 30 more murres arrived the next morning. “We gotta just keep going until all these birds have been taken care of.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's Living on Earth.

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