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Why Thousands of Seabirds are Washing Up Dead

Jan 05, 2015 02:02 PM EST

Washington and Northern Californian shores have been seeing a very alarming (and rather smelly) sight over the last few months. The carcasses of thousands of small birds have been washing ashore, and scientists along the Pacific Coast are scrambling to understand why.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 1,200 bodies of the seabirds, called Cassin's auklets, have been recorded and collected by the University of Washington's Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COSST) since fall began, but reports coming in from Canada say that the number may be into the millions. It is rumored that along the tip of Cape Scott, Vancouver Island, the carcasses that have piled up on beaches are too numerous to count.

Laura Judson, a spokesperson for the Pacific Rim National Park, told the press Monday that their staff is currently in the process of freezing the birds to send them to Canadian Wildlife Services for testing. She expressed the park's confidence that a necropsy will help determine the cause of death for these birds, but suspicion is on drowning.

That's because Cassin's auklets are true seabirds, not commonly seen along the shoreline. Instead, they can be found much further out over the Pacific, diving beak first into waters to snag their prey. If a strong storm system blew in and caught them unawares, a flock of thousands - if not millions - might suffer for it.

And while research has shown that birds are very good at determining when a storm is headed their way, Judson revealed to Westerly News that so far, the majority of the birds collected appear to have been juveniles, just getting the hang of hunting for themselves, never mind storm detection.

However, there is still "a little bit of mystery to it."

That's at least according to Julia Parrish, Executive Director of the COSST, who says sampling from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggests a natural death as well, but via starvation.

Lindsay Adrean, a wildlife biologist for the department, told the LA Times that the birds had an "unusually successful breeding season" just last year, with almost every breeding pair laying and hatching an egg. (Scroll to read on...)

Unfortunately, as the resulting youngsters started their first trip south for the winter, food may have gotten more and more scarce - in part because of their own overpopulation and also thanks to climate change.

Warming waters, Adrean suggests, could have tipped the balance of food availability away from the young seabirds. However, Parrish adds that if this change was severe enough to cause mass deaths, we wouldn't just be seeing the corpses of auklets.

"If the bottom had fallen out of the ecosystem, you would be seeing everybody dying, but we are not," she said - thus the mystery.

However, as is often the case in life, the true answer may not be "black or white," but a bit more gray. These past two holiday weekends saw some violent storm systems out in the Pacific. If food supplies were just low enough to slow the Cassin's auklets with hunger pangs, they could have gotten caught in multiple storms, even if they saw them coming. If they opted to delay the next leg of their migration in search of more food, the same result would be inevitable.

"It was disturbing to see all these dead birds," Mary Christmas of Ucluelet, Canada told Westerly, adding that she had "never seen anything like thing before" in her 14 years on the West Coast.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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