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Thousands of starved birds found on Alaskan beaches

Whales, sea otters and fish have also experienced abnormally high mortality rates over the last several months.
By Brooks Hays   |   Jan. 12, 2016 at 12:39 PM

KODIAK, Alaska, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Thousands of dead and dying common murres, one of the most common seabirds in the Pacific Northwest, have been washing ashore in Alaska. Federal scientists are currently investigating the cause.

"Seabird mortality events occur occasionally, especially after a hard winter, and causes are often difficult to determine," researchers with the Federal Wildlife Service wrote in a recent press release. "This current die-off, however, appears to be unusually large."

Murres typically spend the winter months offshore, but have been showing up in unusually large numbers along the coast of Alaska. Birds have been observed inhabiting inland locales, a rarity.

Researchers believe the unusual behavior and mass die-off is the result of changes in the ecosystem brought on by the ongoing El Niño weather system and potentially exacerbated by global warming.

Unusually warm waters have propagated up and down the West Coast over the last year, resulting in a variety of odd and disheartening ecological phenomena -- from the arrival of exotic snakes to the emaciation of sea lions.

According to Alaska Public Radio, whales, sea otters and fish have all experienced abnormally high mortality rates over the last several months.

The reduction in the number of juvenile fish is bad news for seabirds like the murre, who typically feed on schools of young herring, capelin and pollock. Though they haven't declared an official cause of the ongoing die-off, many suggest the loss of a reliable winter food source is to blame.

More than 100 deceased murre specimens have been collected from Alaskan beaches and sent to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., where they will undergo disease and toxicological testing.

Fish and Wildlife biologist Robin Corcoran has been documenting the die-off in Kodiak. She says the birds aren't sick, just starved.

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

U.S. Geological Survey researcher John Piatt has been documenting the fatalities in Whittier, Alaska, where the die-off has been especially large. His observations are much the same as Corcoran's.

"These birds are wicked skinny -- no fat reserves," Piatt told Alaska Dispatch News. "It's an awful way to die, and they're dying en masse."

"It's the same story everywhere," Corcoran added. "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."

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