For Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, natural conditions (i.e., deep, cold nutrient rich water) are excellent for seabirds, many of whom we rarely meet. Even the Common Murre (Uria aalge), a species with a breeding population well over a million in the Northeast Pacific ocean, is not so commonly seen after all, except by ocean-going anglers and others aboard vessels.
Common Murres spend their lives on the open ocean coming to land only during the nesting season, when they lay eggs and raise their young on sea stacks and rocky cliffs – Devil’s Slide just south of San Francisco, the Marin Headlands, on sea stacks and rocky cliffs all the way to Alaska, including Flatiron Rock just off Trinidad, Humboldt County and Castle Rock near Crescent City at the Oregon border in Del Norte.
A periodic physical examination makes certain our young Common Murre patients are developing into healthy young adults.
While their wild salt lives may be a mystery to those who stay ashore, unfortunately Common Murres are all too familiar with human action, especially when it comes to ocean health. Common Murres are regular victims of oil pollution, derelict fishing gear, overfishing, agricultural runoff which can produce harmful algal blooms that coat prey fish in poison, and of course, the general industrialization of the sea.
Because of these threats, Common Murres are regularly admitted into the many (but too few!) wildlife care facilities that are found along the Pacific Coast.
Humboldt Wildlife Care Center is no exception. Each year approximately 3% of our patients (roughly 30 birds) are admitted for care. Half of these, typically, are juvenile birds who have become separated from their parents before they were ready. In our seabird pool right now we are caring for 6 juveniles and 1 adult.
Common Murres are colony nesters who enjoy the proximity of their cohorts.
Unlike many birds (e.g., pelicans, albatross) who are nearly full grown when they leave their nest, Murre chicks leap from their rocky colonies weeks before they can fly. The chicks are led to sea by their fathers, who continue their care, feeding them and showing the young birds how to dive for fish. Fathers and young congregate in large feeding areas off the coast.
Chicks and fathers recognize each other by call, with voices that are evolved to resonate across waves and wind. Should the father be injured or killed, or a large vessel plow through the feeding area, scattering the birds, it is possible the chick will be orphaned or unable to survive alone. How often this happens, we don’t know. What we do know is that when an orphaned youngster makes it to the beach – usually weak, cold and exhausted – if found, we can raise them in our specially prepared saline pool and release them when they are able to fend for themselves.
For this year’s Murre chicks, fate has provided an adult Murre, whose prognosis for recovery is very good, and who for now has the role of surrogate parent, or at least favorite aunt or uncle. The presence of this adult bird greatly reduces the stress of the youngsters. We hope the benefit is mutual.
As always, your support makes our work possible. Each Common Murre chick eats a little over a pound of fish a day. After 6 weeks in care that’s about 50 pounds. With 7 Murres, you can see how quickly our fish bill adds up! Keeping salt pools for the young birds takes resources too! Thank you for your support! If you would like to contribute to their care, please click on the donate link. Your tax-deductible support goes directly to the rescue, treatment and release of injured and orphaned wildlife on the North coast and beyond! Thank you for being a part of this life saving work!
(All photos: Laura Corsiglia/BAX)