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Seabird Deaths Pique Scientists' Curiosity. Investigation Regarding Die-Off Ongoing

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Seabirds are dying at an alarming rate -- and scientists are puzzled why.

It's normal for volunteers to spot a dead bird or two along a kilometer stretch of beach. However, when spotters in Oregon recorded up to 30 in November in a single strip and as many as 115 for every kilometer in December, the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife had to investigate.

According to Lindsay Adrean, a wildlife biologist from ODFW, the birds found have mostly died of starvation. With toxic reactions to food and oil spills ruled out, one possible explanation for birds starving is that there's just too many of them competing for the same food supply.

In 2014, a breeding session in British Columbia was successful, leading to nearly all breeding pairs laying eggs. When the young birds flew south for winter, there might not have been enough small shrimp and fish to feed them all.

It also didn't help that the Pacific was a few degrees warmer during winter, with the subtle changes in temperature affecting the food chain.

However, Julia Parrish, executive director for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team at the University of Washington, said that while there are probably tens of thousands of small birds such as Cassin's auklets and common murres dead, other coastal birds are not affected.

"If the bottom had fallen out of the ecosystem, you would be seeing everybody dying, but we are not. There is a little bit of a mystery to it," she said.

Researchers have attached colored zip ties to some dead birds to facilitate a study on seabird mortality. Dead birds pose little risk to humans, but people who spot them on the beach are urged not to move or touch them. Instead, authorities must be informed for proper retrieval to be arranged.

Since fall of 2014, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team has documented over 1,200 dead birds washing ashore. On Christmas day, volunteer spotter Robert Ollikainen walked along a low sand bar from Tillamook Bay to the Pacific and came across 126 dead birds. They were small, about the size of a fist each.

With the scarcity of food, it's possible the birds were swooping closer to shore for some grub. This may also explain why more carcasses are found closer to the shore.

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