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Thousands Of Alaskan Seabirds Starved To Death? Mass Deaths Baffle Scientists

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Thousands of common murres have been washing up dead along the beaches of the Alaska Gulf since last summer and the worst is not yet over. With the North Pacific Ocean pounded by storms, the birds are finding themselves far away from their natural habitats, losing the battle to survive.

In Whittier, Alaska, about 8,000 dead murres have been recorded, while popular tourist destination Homer also reported thousands of seabird deaths. No one knows just how many carcasses litter the remote and rarely visited beaches that run along the coast of the Alaska Gulf.

This isn't the first murre die-off Alaska has seen but what's different this time is that the seabirds were forced inland by an oscillating jetstream that has been wreaking havoc on the state's weather for two winters in a row. Some blamed climate change but experts say it is difficult to determine if what Alaska is experiencing is a short-term, but strange, anomaly or a long-term shift.

Murres lucky enough to be found alive are taken to rehabilitation centers but the sheer number of seabirds needing rescue has taxed resources. Additionally, rescuers are worried that rehabilitated seabirds would just end up starving in the wild.

The common murre, in particular, needs to eat small fish around a fiftieth of its body weight each day to live. While the weather is a big factor in the present die-off, there is also clearly a problem relating to the seabird's food supply.

"We know they are starving. Their stomachs are empty. But we don't yet know what the mechanism is," said Robb Kaler, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife seabird biologist in Anchorage.

One possible reason why murres are not getting the food they need is that the number of herring and other small fish may be lower than usual or they may be behaving differently because of the unusual weather in the region.

Thousands of dead murres may seem like a drop in the bucket considering the 2.8 million seabirds scattered around Alaska across 230 primary nesting grounds, but local officials are saying the current die-off is exceptional.

As horrible as a die-off is, there is some good to come out of it, like leaving eagles, ravens, coyotes, magpies, minks, weasels, foxes and other animals happily fed.

Photo: Ron Knight | Flickr

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