NOTE- once you learn a little about these rad shorebirds you will want to help out. Please donate to International Bird Rescue in nearby Fairfield HERE!
Last week, as I rode my last wave into the sand after a midday surf, I noticed a little shorebird weakly waddling up to me. It looked tired and sad, and it was obvious it needed some kind of help. As I looked around, I noticed several others of the same type of bird, all dead or in the process of getting pecked to death by ravens and gulls. Their little bodies littered the beach in both directions.
So I figured I’d pick up the little bird, which resembled a penguin, with the idea of finding it some kind of help. The little penguin-like bird didn't resist my gentle grip in the slightest, no flurry of pecks and flapping wings. Surprised by it's complete calm, I carried it cupped against my chest up and over the dunes. Once home, I found out what sort of bird this was online- while also looking for regional bird rescue organizations- then I made the Murre a little nest in a bin with towels. I called up International Bird Rescue and a helpful person named Isabel gave me some good information of how to help the bird until I could take it to the shelter. That evening, I blended up some fresh fish, that with some coaxing, I was able to inject down it's gullet with a large syringe. After feeding it I returned the Murre to the box, and with newfound energy the Murre tried to hop out. Curious, I took it out of the bin and placed it a few feet away to see what the little Murre had in it to do. It made a beeline for me, surprisingly, and jumped right into my lap. It allowed me to pet his neck and head, and I sat in quiet amazement pondering the fact that this wild sea bird seemed to know I was helping it, and that it indeed was seeking out my physical touch. It's pretty cool to experience the fact that two creatures from radically different worlds can communicate complex ideas, like the feeling of safety and comfort, when their worlds are so incredibly different.
I ended up watching a movie with the Murre sitting comfortably in my lap the entire time. When put it back into the box for bed, it seemed much stronger. I felt optimistic about it's chances. Sadly, within an hour or two I checked up on it and found it had died. I guess it was too far gone. I felt a little better knowing that it's last moments weren't of getting rained on by a raven's beak, but spent peacefully watching Friday Night Lights, warm and safe on my lap.
As most of you probably know, SF nearshore ocean temperatures are currently registering some of the highest temperatures on record. Offshore about 20 to 30 miles, roughly the distance to the Farallones, temperatures are at, or exceeding 68 degrees Fahrenheit. This could be due to all kinds of factors- El Nino, the "Blob"(record warm temperature pool in the entire Eastern Pacific), or some combination of factors yet to be explained. Suffice it to say that the normal upwelling of cool, nutrient rich water, which is driven by our usually relentless onshore winds has not been happening all that often. While we have all been enjoying the warm water, it's been a big problem for all the other marine critters that depend on this upwelling for food to survive. Dead birds littering the beach, dead seals and sea lions, are all sad reminders that El Nino is currently dominating the Pacific.
"If the wind doesn't blow, there's no cooling of the water. It's like the refrigerator fails. The local water warms up from the sun, and water is not cooling off" says Nate Mantua, a research scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.
You can pick up a Murre easily by gently wrapping a towel around them.
Common Murres which many refer to as “Little Penguins" are dying en masse. They are washing up on shore simply because they are starving. Their food source, fish of course, are down deeper in cooler thermoclines, deeper then the Murres are accustomed too. So the Murres wash up weak and unable to sustain themselves, where they are thereupon killed by Ravens and Seagulls. I've observed this massacre enough to notice that often the Murres are just killed for the sake of killing, and often not eaten at all. While I try to avoid making any ridiculous moral judgment about ravens and gulls, no amount of rationalization makes it easy for me to stomach, and we should help out- that is clear to my intution! To better understand why this is going on I've decided to ask the great people at The International Bird Rescue in Fairfield, here is Isabel to inform us about what is going on. Again, if you are able, please make a online donation to support their work.
AP: Isabel please tell us a little about yourself and your role with IBR. Introduce and include any other IBR staff that would like to be in the interview.
IL: I am the lead rehabilitation technician at International Bird Rescue. I have worked here for a little over 5 years. We have 4 other technicians who also care for the birds we have in house. Our organization started in 1971 when there was a large oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. This is when International Bird Rescue was created and we have been working with native aquatic bird species ever since. Learning more and more as the time goes by.
AP: Please tell us a little about Common Murres their habitat, food and migration patterns.
Check out the live Murre cam at IBR HERE! So rad!
IL: Common Murres breed on our coast, one large breeding population is on the Farallone Islands. They are amazing swimmers and divers, mainly using there strong, sturdy wings to dive down, up to 300 feet to forage. They feed on many items such as Euphausiids, capelin, sand eels, herring, marine worms, shrimps and mollusks. Murres tend to come to the Farallones and cliff side on our coast in the fall to begin nesting and after Summer migrate off shore to open water until breeding begins again. The mainly stay on our coast or can migrate north towards the Aleutian islands.
AP: Why is such a large population washing up/dying seemingly at once?
IL: Our organization is unsure why we are seeing so many washing up on shore and presented in our hospital. We all have different theories/ideas but we may never know the exact cause. It could be due to the warmer waters on our coast causing fish and other food items to stay deeper in the water, where these birds, especially juveniles cannot dive to. It could also be a natural die off, where they may just be dying off to even out their numbers in the environment, which then the ecosystem may better handle their population. It is the end of their breeding season, so there are larger numbers of them on our coast at this time due to juveniles leaving the nest and foraging with there parent. In my 5 years with IBR I have never seen this many Murres in care, this is unusual and something we do not see every year.
AP: I’ve noticed lots of bait balls in shallow water, do Murres not hunt Sardines? What kind of fish do Murres hunt?
IL: We have heard word that there is fish out there so we are not sure what is causing them to come into care starving. from what I have read the eat Capelin, Cod, herring, shrimp, euphausiids, mollusks and some marine invertebrates. I am not sure if they eat Sardines or why they wouldn't if there were a source of them out there.
AP: I have picked up three Murres to bring in for rescue, and they have been so friendly they almost seem to be domesticated. Is this because they are so weak that they are unable to defend themselves, or a unique trait in a wild bird? The birds I handled genuinely seemed happy to be out of their poor predicament and comfortable and calm at my house.
IL: Unfortunately this behavior is due to there weakened state. They just do not have the reserves or energy to fight back which leaves them at risk for becoming predated on. It is most definitely not a normal behavior which as with any wildlife, if you can approach it there is more then likely something wrong with it.
AP: What is involved in the rehabilitation of a Murre when it has arrived?
IL: Once the bird has arrived at our facility we do a physical exam, which includes taking a weight, temperature and a blood sample. These three indicators can tell us what shape the bird is in. Most of these birds a coming in weighing less then half their normal body weight. Also they have dropped body temperatures and low red blood cells, all these are signs that their body's are shutting down due to the lack of nutritional resources. Once we check over the bird it is banded with a color and number so we can track it in care. These birds are then offered food and even tube fed to get nutrients into the quickly.
AP: Will the rehabilitated Murre face the same situation once released- or will it continue migration and be able to get back to more stable conditions/habitat?
IL: I cant say for sure what the future will hold for these birds. But i can say we make sure then they are released back into the wild they are a healthy weight, with healthy blood work and planty of fat/muscle reserves to get the head start they need so much. Hopefully we can help the ones we released get ahead start on migration. We also federally band our birds at release so if one if found again, the band should be reported and we will have a better understanding if they were able to make it or not.
AP: What can we do to help?
We are a non profit and any size donation helps the care of these and other aquatic birds. We currently have 142 Common Murres in care as well as other species so our funds are disappearing fast with all the fish, and medical supplies we use on their care. We also have volunteers positions open year round and are happy to take on new volunteers to help with the daily care of these animals. Our work everyday has grown as the numbers grow, and its hard work making sure these animals have the best care possible.
We also ask, if anyone finds wildlife in need, like a Common Murre, to contact their local wildlife rehabilitation center and get the bird into care as soon as possible.