Northern Fulmars, seabirds of mystery

NOFU 2014 - 05-clear-background-copyfrom the Bridge of a crabbing Ship
in the middle of the night on the southern Bering sea –
Wakened by the Rolling Sea.

it is december and in a locker on board
hang orange suits Meant to
Protect human Life
should the Vessel go Down.

otherwise, says the pilot
we have five minutes at Most
before we Succumb to the Cold
and we Drown –

the Bow points to the Sky,
then down into the Trough
the lights cast a wide arc and we see
peppering the Crests,
Heads Tucked, at rest
northern Fulmars,
common Murres, asleep.

Northern Fulmars (Fulmaris glacialis) are mysterious birds. Their pelagic lives rarely intersect our land-locked habits. When they do come ashore, to rear their young, they choose remote sea cliffs at the edge of ice-covered oceans. At sea, because they follow the fishing industry’s floating slaughter-houses, perhaps those who know them best are whalers and commercial fishers.

Infrequent visitors to land, they are less commonly admitted for care than other seabirds who stay close to the coasts. As with all tasks, increased exposure improves our skills. So for many years, Northern Fulmars were regarded as a difficult species to treat, and many of these birds died while in our care.

When caring for a wild animal, besides treatment for whatever the injury or condition, the primary care given is husbandry, which amounts mostly to diet and housing. When we tried to find how to provide better care for fulmars, these are the areas we had to study.

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Early in treatment, in a small tepid salt pool. The environment is meant to be stress-free.

Northern Fulmars eat anything – aquatic invertebrates like krill, small fish, squid. And they live on the open ocean. While their habitat is impossible to recreate, it still is relatively simple. Open sea.

In late fall of 2003, there was a Northern Fulmar wreck (a seabird wreck is an unusual mortality event involving large numbers of the same or mixed species – while these have occurred throughout time, warmer oceans, acidified oceans, and nitrified oceans are playing an increasing role) in which hundreds of these birds were beached from Baja to British Columbia… sadly very few birds were released. Most facilities did not have proper pools and lacked experience. Along the coast, most birds died.

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Evaluating feather condition and ablity to stay dry in water, or waterproofing…

At the facility where I was the care manager, we realized that our diet, established to provide high calories without fat, so that oils wouldn’t contaminate the pool, was not merely not helping, but was actively harming the birds, who were dying, several a day. We switched to a fish-based diet, and immediately, birds began to respond. We managed to release 7 of the 75 in our care. While we were encouraged by our improvement, still this was a dismal result.

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Regular examinations and blood tests allow us to track the patient’s progress.

In 2007, along the coast of Monterey Bay, another Fulmar wreck occurred – much smaller in scope, only birds in the bay were affected, not the whole coast. Still we had 140 birds in care! We were seeing similar results, roughly 10% of the birds were looking good, appearing to be headed for release.

By coincidence, the facility we were using had seawater pools that were available for Sea Otters. Because of the large numbers of birds in care, we had to use these pools as well. Imagine our shock when nearly all the birds on seawater suddenly became voracious eaters, vocalizing and highly active. While we had no physiological reason for these birds not thriving on freshwater (many other seabirds do fine on freshwater while in care) our eyes told us all we really needed to know. Northern Fulmars require salt water.

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As their health improves, a larger salt pool and far less handling are required for continued recovery.

So last month, when we got four fulmars in from local beaches in Humboldt County, the first thing we did was salt our pools. In fact, our pools are built with pumps that allow us to switch back and forth between salt and fresh water for just this reason. We use salt for all pelagic birds now – while it is more expensive to add salt to a pool, certainly, but salt, especially for Northern Fulmars, is the difference between life and death.

Your generosity supports innovations like these. Without you we would not be able to provide the best care we can, and “push the envelope” to improve, to learn, and to be able to save more wild lives. Thank you so much for making our work possible. Scroll through the following pictures of our Northern Fulmars recently in care… and when you feel good about their release, please, feel free to feel good about yourselves for helping to make it happen.


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Rehabilitator Lucinda Adamson (left) and wildlife student/volunteer Lisa Falcao watch their patients fly away.

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All Photos: Laura Corsiglia/Bird Ally X