Starving sea birds pop up in Anchorage, Mat-Su

The Anchorage Bird Treatment and Learning Center has received 20 common murres over the past month. All were starving. Photo: Monica Gokey/KSKA.
The Anchorage Bird Treatment and Learning Center has received 20 common murres over the past month. All were starving. Photo: Monica Gokey/KSKA.

An increase in dead or starving common murres has expanded beyond coastal communities and into urban areas in recent weeks. An Anchorage bird rehabilitation center that usually sees one or two murres a year has gotten 20 this month. All were starving.

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At the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, a cluster of five black and white birds huddle together in the corner of a plastic tub. They almost look like penguins. Each sports a dab of paint on the beak.

“That’s nail polish, identifying nail polish,” laughs Bird TLC volunteer Dave Schraer. “There’s Triple Red Dot. And that’s Double Red Dot… that’s Single Red Dot… that’s how we tell them apart.”

Schraer offers one a herring with a pair of forceps. The bird grabs it eagerly with its beak, wiggles its head side to side, and the fish disappears down its gullet.

Volunteer Dave Schraer feeds the murres small herring. They've been able to eat whole fish for a couple of days now, and are taking to it with gusto. Photo: Monica Gokey/KSKA.
Volunteer Dave Schraer feeds the murres small herring. They’ve been able to eat whole fish for a couple of days now, and are taking to it with gusto. Photo: Monica Gokey/KSKA.

It’s exactly what he wants to see. When these birds first came in, they were so severely emaciated they couldn’t eat whole fish.

“Most of the time when you offered them food they would just turn their head away, or scurry away.”

Dead and starving murres, are being cataloged across Alaska. They join a growing list of marine wildlife experiencing high mortality rates this year — like whales, sea otters and fish.

Murre die-offs aren’t unprecedented. They’ve coincided with El Nino years, or severe weather events in the past. But this die-off is disconcerting due to its duration and geographic breadth.

Kodiak-based Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Corcoran says the first reports of dead murres came in in April, and have escalated since then.

“I know that I’ve documented — just in my personal surveys — more than 300 dead common murres on the beaches along the road system here in Kodiak,” Corcoran says.

A murre too weak to fly near the head of Kalsin Bay. Photo: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.
A murre too weak to fly near the head of Kalsin Bay. Photo: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

Scientists are still trying to get a grip on the scale of the die-off, but beachcomber programs in the Lower 48 have documented dead murres as far south as California.

“It’s the same story everywhere,” Corcoran says. “We’re seeing a big increase in the number of dead common murres. With the large scale of the event, I think what’s most commonly believed at this point is that it’s related to the warm sea surface temperature.”

"The Blob" is an unusually warm mass of seawater off the Pacific Coast. March 2015. Photo: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division at Boulder, Colorado
“The Blob” is an unusually warm mass of seawater off the Pacific Coast. March 2015. Photo: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division at Boulder, Colorado

Enter “The Blob.” It’s an unusually warm … well, blob… of seawater pressed up against the West Coast. Scientists have a hunch it could affect the distribution of the forage fish murres depend on, hence all the starving birds. But it’s hard to tell.

Corcoran says they’ve sent more than 40 dead birds to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin for necropsies.

“With only one exception, all of our birds have been emaciated. No body fat. And no stomach contents.”

Because the birds don’t have any stomach contents, scientists can’t adequately test for paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, which tends to be more prevalent when warm ocean temperatures give rise to algal blooms. PSP and other biotoxins are primary suspects in other marine fauna die-offs happening right now.

Corcoran has a hunch that the murres’ trouble is compounded by a quirk in their biology — the fall molt, when they are flightless for about 40 days.

Growing back their feathers is very energetically expensive.

“They need to eat a lot to grow those feathers,” Corcoran says. “They put a lot of protein into those feathers.”

Four dead, scavenged murre carcasses at the head of Kalsin Bay. Photo: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.
Four dead, scavenged murre carcasses at the head of Kalsin Bay. Photo: Robin Corcoran/USFWS.

By the time the birds can fly again, they’re sapped of energy.

“And they’re trying to fly around, but I think they’re exhausting their resources and ending up in some weird places.”

Weird places like parking lots… the state fair grounds in Palmer… backyards in Wasilla… and even downtown Anchorage — all unusual places for birds that spend most their lives at sea. Bird TLC director Guy Runco says some of the birds in their care right now were even window strikes.

Bird TLC volunteers like Dave Schraer signed up for round-the-clock feeding shifts when the murres first started coming in. The birds were tube-fed a smoothie of salmon and hooligan. It wasn’t pretty.

“Somebody holds them and the other person kinds of opens their beak and puts the tube down,” Schraer says. “No, they don’t enjoy it. And we don’t like to do it if you don’t have to because it’s stressful for the bird.”

Stressful for the birds, but necessary to save their lives.

All of the murres are gaining weight at a steady clip, and the bird center anticipates releasing them back into the wild in the coming weeks.

Anchorage Bird TLC is always soliciting frozen fish donations and volunteers. For either inquiry, find them online at http://www.birdtlc.net/ or call them at 907-562-4852.