Raising Common Murre Chicks in a Changing World

All along the west coast of North America, on the rocks and cliffs of the crumbling edge, Common Murres (Uria aalge), elegant seabirds with a large local population, gather each Spring to mate and raise their young. Highly dependent on the cold nutrient-rich waters of the California Current, these birds are strictly fish eaters, diving to depths of 180 meters and maybe deeper*, using their wings to “fly” beneath the waves to catch their prey.

Common Murres leave their nest site long before they are fully grown or independent. Jumping from the rocky cliffs, the young seabirds join a parent, almost always their father, at sea to continue feeding, growing and learning. For over 20 million years, Common Murres (also known as Common Guillemots) have lived in this manner, through the ice ages, the warmings, and the shifts in coastline and habitat that have occurred.

[We are in the middle of our October fundraiser and need your help, urgently. We must raise $7000 by the 31st! We are still several thousand dollars away. Please support wildlife rehabilitation and advocacy for the wild on the North Coast and beyond! Click here to donate now.]

Our world is wild. We can’t really say that one part is more or less wild than another, but certainly we can say that the ocean, in the best of times, is a challenging environment. In our current age, the age of human interference with natural cycles so severe that impacts are seen at the planetary scale, the challenges may be insurmountable.

So while it has been normal in each year for Humboldt Wildlife Care Center to admit 30 to 40 Common Murre chicks during the months of July, August and September, due to the a wide assortment of causes, we knew something was amiss when this Summer we admitted only 6 young birds. Just as our typical season of raising orphaned Murre chicks began – late June and early July – it also ended.

img_3454A very young Common Murre, on admission day, rests in our incubator, exhausted and nearly starved to death.

dsc_3565After warming up, a full examination is performed. Supplements, such as vitmain B, and anti-parasitical drugs are given.

dsc_3570Each chick is given an identification band so that we can accurately track her or his progress.


dsc_3551Common Murres are colony-nesters and housing them with others helps ease the stress of captive care.

Our patients this year came in very young – each of them was well under 200 grams which is approximately their weight at the time when they usually leave the nest.  As you can imagine, a young bird without a parent floating across the coastal waters of the North pacific will be in pretty rough shape by the time she or he is beached. Very thin, dehydrated and close to death, we immediately provide supportive care – fluids and warmth.

It’s a tough thing, having a setback like this at such a young age, and not every orphan will survive. Th early days of care are the worst, and we lost two within their first 24 hours of treatment. In the end, of the 6, we released 3. They spent over two moths with us, first housed indoors under a heat lamp and then moving outdoors to our newly built saltwater pool.

dsc_4441In our newly built seabird pool. Magnetic-drive pumps, unlike most swimming pool pumps, allow us to switch between fresh and saltwater, as the needs of our patients dictates.

dsc_4439Each bird ate nearly 50 night smelt each day. Over the course of two months, that’s a lot of fish!

2016 on our coast was a bad year for Common Murres. There simply hasn’t been enough fish. Lack of fish, leads directly to fewer young seabirds. Common Murres are long lived and can absorb the occasional bad year. If fish populations recover, so will they recover. But current conditions don’t seem to be signs that we are living in a time of recovery.

Agricultural runoff introduces nitrogen in to the sea which increases the frequency of harmful algal blooms. Plastics and other garbage pollutants wreak havoc on the food chain. Overfishing depletes the ocean of the resources which all species depend on to survive and thrive. Rising ocean temperatures as a part of anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) climate change are destroying the web of life as it has evolved over the vast fabric of time. We have no idea which species will survive, or what the outcome will be for “the wheel’s still in spin.”

Still, for the birds that we admitted, prompt care and proper facilities (provided by your support!) allowed them to recover and be released back to their wild and free lives… which come with no guarantees.

We may not know what our future holds – this has always been true – but we do know that, no matter how much damge there is – no matter the extent of the injuries that we cause – we owe to Mother Earth and all her residents the best possible care for the victims of human industry, human carelessness and human indifference. We do what we can with what we have and without you, we’d have nothing.


dsc_4728Volunteer staff takes our three Common Murre patients to the bay for release.

dsc_4732As birds who spend nearly their entire lives on water, they don’t walk very well. We place them directly in the bay.

dsc_4765We do what we can. Yes it feels good to help. It’s one of the ways that we know that helping is the right thing to do.

dsc_4760Paddling out to deeper waters to join others out beyond the old formation. From 150 gram babies to nearly grown adults  over 900 grams, this is the second chance that you provided with your support.

Your support means the difference between these birds dying on a beach and getting a second chance. Please help. We need to raise $7000 before the end of October. Help us help our wild neighbors. Click here to Donate Now. Thank you!

All photos: Laura Corsiglia/ Bird Ally X


*Diving Depths of Four Alcids (1984)Piatt, John F.; Nettleship, David N.